August Wilson in Loving Hands at McCarter
Also see Bob's review of Julius Caesar
Gem of the Ocean is the ninth play in August Wilson’s ten play cycle (each set in a different decade) which provides a richly imaginative interpretation of 20th century African-American history through the ordinary-extraordinary experiences of his ordinary-extraordinary characters. With his death from liver cancer at the age of 60 earlier this month, Wilson’s pen has been stilled. However, the legacy of his 10 play Pittsburgh cycle (all but one of the plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh) will always be with us. In announcing his imminent demise in August, Wilson said, “I’ve lived a blessed life. I’m ready,” adding “I’m glad I finished the cycle.” And so are we, the fortunate legatees of his genius and humanity.
It would be hard to imagine a better production of Gem of the Ocean than the impassioned and powerfully acted one at hand. A must see for devotees of Wilson’s work, it is also a perfect place for entry level folks to begin their journey into the world of August Wilson.
For, although it is the penultimate play in the cycle, chronologically, it is the first one. (Star Wars fans, think of The Phantom Menace.) Although set in 1904, Gem sets the stage for the entire journey through its stories of the middle passage (the part of the journey of the slave ships which brought enslaved Africans to America), the underground railway and Reconstruction, as recounted by the survivors who comprise the older generation of characters here. And it is the rich storytelling at which Wilson excels which provides many of the evening’s pleasures.
Desperately hard times in the South (blacks are subject to physical assault and denied the right to travel) have caused many to escape to mill towns like Pittsburgh and better, but still very hard times. The mill workers are about to strike after one of them, accused of stealing a bucket of nails, has fled the police and drowns - preferring death to being labeled a criminal for a theft that he insists that he didn’t commit. Although it would seem that they are also motivated by their woefully inadequate wages.
The setting is the home of Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), a regal elderly woman of indeterminate age (in earlier productions, she has been identified as being 285 years of age) whose shaman like skills have made her the spiritual leader of the community. Here she lives with her protector, the elderly Eli (Chuck Patterson), who has assigned himself the role of “gatekeeper” for Ester, and her protégée and housekeeper, Black Mary (Roslyn Ruff). Often sharing their day there is Solly Two Kings (John Amos), a longtime suitor of Ester and friend of Eli, dating back to their efforts with the underground railway. Also on premises are Caesar (Keith Randolph Smith), a black police officer and landlord who has abandoned his soul and harshly mistreats others for his own gain, and Selig (Raynor Scheine), a white itinerant peddler who is a true friend to the household.
Enter Citizen Barlow (Russell Hornsby), a young man recently arrived from Alabama who is desperate to be ministered to by Aunt Ester. She will take him on a spiritual journey in order to cleanse his soul.
The rite performed by Aunt Ester and her associates consists of a metaphoric journey for Citizen Barlow to the “city of bones” built by ancestors who could not complete a journey to freedom. The actors onstage enter this journey with extraordinary energy and commitment, and they are totally immersed and believing. Phylicia Rashad and Russell Hornsby do the heaviest lifting here magnificently. Each and every cast member creates a rich and memorable portrait.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has gotten bravura and ensemble performances of the highest order from his entire cast. The detailed, oversized, sloping set by Michael Carnahan is both realistic and strongly stylized, a perfect match for Wilson’s writing.
And August Wilson reminds us that freedom is not easy. As he writes, “Freedom is what you make it ... You got to fight to make it mean something.”
Gem of the Ocean continues performances through October 30 (Eves: Wed.-Fri./Sun (except 10/30) 7:30 p.m.; Mats: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) at the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, 08540; Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org
Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson; directed by Ruben
Cast (in order of appearance)