Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set design by David Gallo. Costume design by Constanza Romero. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Fight director J. Allen Suddeth. Dramaturg Todd Kreidler. Original music composition and vocal arrangements by Kathryn Bostic. Cast: Phylicia Rashad, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, LisaGay Hamilton, Anthony Chisholm. With Eugene Lee, Raynor Scheine, and introducing John Earl Jelks as Citizen Barlow.
Throughout his chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century, playwright August Wilson has examined the chains, both physical and psychological, binding each new decade of black Americans to their troubled and violent past. Such is also the case with Gem of the Ocean, the inspiriting play Wilson has written ninth in the cycle but first in his chronology: It takes place in 1904, when slavery - of the soul, if no longer the body - remains at its most restrictive.
Yet despite the aftereffects of the Civil War still looming large over its characters, the play that just opened at the Walter Kerr is of the liberating rather than the confining sort. Just about every character overcomes some type of bondage, whether self-imposed or inflicted by others, and must embark on a journey, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. The lessons the characters learn, ranging from experiencing the horrors of the slave trade to standing up for oneself in a matter infinitely more minute, plant the seeds for a future of freedom.
Of course, that's a future that none of the residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District (where this play, like most of Wilson's others, is set) will live to see. What we know that they cannot is that the same battle they're fighting to maintain their hard-won freedom and establish a life with it is one that must be fought time and time again, often to a stalemate or outright loss.
This is the struggle that is re-enacted throughout the later plays in Wilson's chronology and which, it is revealed here (though it was always implicit), has been a continuous struggle throughout the entire history of the United States. The physical representation of the complete timeline, stretching back to the year that the first slave ship was brought to America, is Aunt Ester, the mysterious, mystical woman who factored prominently into Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, though this is the first time she appears onstage.
She holds court from her house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, where, it's said, she has the power to wash people's souls. One man, Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks, in an impressive debut) is in need of her talent; the determined drifter has found his share of trouble and caused his share of pain, but is ready to carve out a new life for himself. Not until Ester has convinced him to admit his crimes and helped him find his roots can he uncover the destiny awaiting him.
But Citizen is impeded, as so many in the Hill District are, by Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), the black law enforcement officer appointed by white residents to keep the peace. His Bible, he insists, is the penal code, which he follows to the letter, evicting renters for missing a single payment or arresting Ester for her alleged complicity in a crime. His hands are full dealing with the increasingly unhappy workers at the local mill, including one who died while stealing a bucket of nails, and the enmity being stirred up by Solly Two Kings (Anthony Chisholm), an activist with an active interest in Aunt Ester.
That this all hangs together sensibly and tightly - and effectively lays the groundwork for the plays to come - is a tribute to Wilson, who's greatly trimmed and clarified the play since its world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre last year. His dedication is in full evidence, even if a few scenes, particularly early in the first act and late in the second, would benefit from still stronger focus. Director Kenny Leon nicely manages the play as a whole, incorporating a fine blue and black set for Ester's house from David Gallo (described as "a place above the law"), but he is only occasionally in tune with the rhythmic intricacies of Wilson's script, which prevents the production from finding its ideal shape.
That's not the case with the cast, though, which is led by Phylicia Rashad, whom Leon directed to a Tony Award in A Raisin in the Sun this spring. As Ester, Rashad is fidgety of finger and leathery of voice, but finds much the same commanding dignity that so brilliantly defined her Lena Younger; Rashad ideally embodies Ester as the timely and timeless, aged (she's in her 280s) and ageless link to the past.
Of the rest, Santiago-Hudson's Caesar is magnetic and persuasive, while Chisholm cuts an authoritative and funny Solly Two Kings, a former Union scout and the play's most significant and visible thematic tie to the Civil War. Eugene Lee and LisaGay Hamilton are also excellent as Ester's servants Eli and Black Mary, as is Raynor Scheine as traveling salesman Rutherford Selig (who also appears in Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone).
Most central, though, is Jelks, who as Citizen undergoes the play's most vital transformation. In a stunning sequence in the second act, he's led by Aunt Ester on a ship, the Gem of the Ocean (made of paper, Ester's certificate of ownership), to the City of Bones at the "center of the world," built from the remains of slaves who didn't survive the transatlantic trip. Through Ester's chanting and the play of masks and shadows that test the limits of Constanza Romero's costumes and Donald Holder's lights, Citizen experiences the pain suffered by those who came before him, experiencing the anguish of their hopelessness first hand. When Citizen completes his journey, Jelks's beaming face and radiant sense of accomplishment unforgettably signal that his soul truly has been washed; it's impossible not to feel yours has been as well.
Citizen has found his freedom, but as Solly Two Kings says, "What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it?" That question transforms Citizen's life, and informs all of Wilson's characters. If the answer is never forthcoming, in Gem of the Ocean or anywhere else, Wilson rightfully demands the question be continually reconsidered. Theatregoers will be forever the richer if Wilson, too, never stops asking it.