Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Wilson is known for his "Century Cycle" of plays: 10 plays, nine of them set in his native Pittsburgh, depicting the African-American experience in the 10 decades of the 20th century. He wrote Gem of the Ocean second to last, but chronologically it's the first, taking place in 1904, and it's the only one in which a pivotal Wilson character appears onstage.
The core of the play is Aunt Ester (Stephanie Berry), the moral center of the Hill District of Pittsburgh. She is believed to be 285 years old, a repository of knowledge, famed for "washing souls" and offering her house as a sanctuary for troubled people. Citizen Barlow (Justin Weaks), recently arrived from the south, is tortured by guilt over a crime he committed and begs Aunt Ester to help him. Berry mesmerizes with her preternatural calm and mastery of situations, while Weaks (a Helen Hayes Award recipient) ably dramatizes his character's journey from fear to purpose.
Only about 40 years have passed since the abolishment of slavery, so the memories remain fresh. Aunt Ester's doorkeeper Eli (Jefferson A. Russell) and his friend Solly Two Kings (Alfred Wilson) recount their days as conductors on the Underground Railroad; Solly actually escaped to Canada, but returned to bring others out of bondage. Wilson makes the most of a flashy role and Russell provides solid support.
Although the north provided more opportunity to African Americans than staying in the south would, the path isn't easy. Black workers earn less than their white counterparts, with fewer job protections, and one of their ownCaesar Wilks (KenYatta Rogers), formerly a bakerhas become a police officer with jurisdiction over the Hill District. Since his sister, Black Mary (Stori Ayers), works for and lives with Aunt Ester, there are some family tensions. Ayers shows how her character has found peace learning from Aunt Ester, and Rogers is riveting in a monologue as he lays out his grim view of the world. Michael Glenn adds humor as a white peddler and friend of Aunt Ester.
The one weak link is a result of trying to fill Round House's vast stage. Instead of a warm and welcoming interior, scenic designer Tony Cisek has to spread out the furniture of Aunt Ester's parlor and kitchen across a broad expanse in the foreground and incorporate walkways to the exits and an oversized staircase.
Round House will present the rest of its season, Oslo and A Doll's House, Part 2, at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington next year while the theater building undergoes renovations.
Round House Theatre