Gem of the Ocean

Lizan Mitchell and Kim Staunton
The legacy left by the late August Wilson includes his 10-play cycle which, through fiction, chronicles by decade the Black experience in 20th century America. The ninth play he wrote for that series, though chronologically the first play, is Gem of the Ocean. Taking place in 1904 in the Hill District neighborhood of Wilson's hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gem of the Ocean brings to life Aunt Ester, the mystical spiritual leader and healer who plays a part in other plays in the cycle.

As the play begins, young steelworker Citizen Barlow (Ed Onipede Blunt) arrives at the home of Aunt Ester (Lizan Mitchell), where she lives with her caretaker Eli (Cortez Nance, Jr.) and Black Mary (Kim Staunton), who maintains the house. Barlow is highly agitated and insistent that he see Aunt Ester immediately - he must have his "soul washed clean." The source of his anxiety eventually comes to light and Aunt Ester helps him redirect his feelings. This story is intertwined with that of a cherished friend, Solly Two Kings (Charles Weldon), an ex-slave who rails against the virtual chains placed on the mill workers by the factory owners. The newly cleansed soul of Citizen Barlow joins with that of Solly Two Kings' to carry out a mission that is played out in eventual plays in this series.

Michael Olich's set of a turn of the century row house sets the proper tone for this intimate play of ordinary people seeking to fight complacency and to set wheels turning to make a difference. Mitchell's Aunt Ester is as cantankerous and unconventional as one might expect, from the legend set forth in other plays. The pipe-smoking, shrill-voiced woman of strong will is almost a caricature, but never quite over that line. Weldon holds Solly's fire just beneath the surface in a rich performance. A shining light in this production is Staunton as Black Mary. Her performance is profoundly natural, and she radiates emotion. As Caesar, nearly betraying his race and voluntarily bound to the factory bosses, Montae Russell shows great passion and frustration. Blunt may be a bit overzealous in his portrayal of the desperate Barlow, but overall the cast is solid. The only drawback in their presentation is the volume at which some of the characters deliver their lines. The level, which reaches yelling, is distracting and the need for this method is a mystery.

Karen Perry's costumes are perfect and original music written and arranged by Kathryn Bostic adds dimension to the production.

The Public Theatre continues to celebrate the work of August Wilson. The only play in this cycle that the Public has not presented is the one most recently written, Radio Golf. It's not unreasonable to expect to see it in a not too distant future season.

Gem of the Ocean continues at the O'Reilly Theater through June 25. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office.

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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