Gem of the Ocean

When he was still alive, August Wilson's legacy as a playwright was assured; now, less than four months after his untimely death, his stature continues to grow exponentially as the final installments of his decade-by-decade chronicle of the 20th-century African-American experience begin to make the rounds.

The Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), which has produced each of the plays as the regional rights have come available, is now running Gem of the Ocean—the ninth, in written order, of the ten in Wilson's series. All of DCTC's productions have been directed by Israel Hicks, and the experience shows.

The most spiritual of his works to date, Gem of the Ocean represents the first decade, tying itself directly to the institution of slavery that had been legal a scant 39 years before the time of the play. As always, Wilson's language shares equal billing with his sharply drawn and powerful characters, while he revisits themes and questions that run throughout his previous efforts (though for posterity this will be the play that sets the tone).

Photo of Marlene Warfield as Aunt Ester
Marlene Warfield as Aunt Ester
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Aunt Ester—who by one account is 287 years old, which ties her to the introduction of slavery in North America in 1619—resides in a modest, but well-kept house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (the setting for nine of the ten plays in the cycle), where all the action and recitation of events take place.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Black Mary
Kim Staunton
as Black Mary
Photo: Terry Shapiro
There, she's tended by Black Mary, who runs her kitchen, and Eli, who does the chores. A variety of locals and travelers drop by, including Solly Two Kings, a former slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad, Caesar, the black constable, Citizen Barlow, a migrant from the South, and Rutherford Selig, a white peddler and friend of the family.

When admirers of Wilson call him "the Black Shakespeare," this is no exaggeration. The Pulitzer Prize- (1987 and 1990) and Tony Award-winning (1987) playwright not only captures the lyricism of the African-American dialect, but elevates it to poetry that rivals the musicality and philosophic weight of the iambic pentameter penned by the apocryphal "Shake-speare" (one of the aliases of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford).

In a pleasant coincidence, DCTC is presenting Gem of the Ocean concurrently with Measure for Measure, allowing us to simultaneously contemplate the most biblically-oriented pieces in both canons. As in Shake-speare's play, the names of Wilson's characters reference Old and New Testament forces.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Black Mary and Terrence Riggins as Caesar
Kim Staunton as Black Mary
and Terrence Riggins as Caesar
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In a searing performance, Terrence Riggins, as Caesar—a shill for the white power structure—not only rails against his own people, but argues for the supremacy of law and money over all things. Clearly, like his namesake, he knows which master he serves!

Photo of (L to R) Charles Weldon as Solly Two Kings and Michael Eaddy as Citizen Barlow
(L to R) Charles Weldon as
Solly Two Kings and
Michael Eaddy as Citizen Barlow
Photo: Terry Shapiro

On the other side of the fence is Solly Two Kings, whose name is derived from the last two kings of Israel, David and Solomon. It is Solly who, as a stand-in for a later descendent of the House of David, says that one cannot serve two masters—it's either G-d or mammon. Resembling an ancient prophet—beneath a Union greatcoat, bearing a staff (walking stick) with 62 notches for those he brought to freedom, and wearing a link from the chains that bound him as a slave—Charles Weldon works magic, drawing upon the spirit of those who were sacrificed at the altar of greed and bigotry. In the pivotal moment of the play, Weldon emerges from the shadows and speaks for everyone who believed that the Civil War would end slavery only to find that it replaced one kind of indentured servitude for another.

But the most stunning scene, without a doubt, is the vision quest conducted by Aunt Ester for Citizen Barlow, in which the generally uneducated, newly-arrived Southerner drinks her strong tea and is guided to the City of Bones, built with the remains of all those who were abducted from Africa, chained and sequestered for the Middle Passage, and died en route.

At every step, Marlene Warfield's Aunt Ester summons the power of African religion in a world that has done all it could to suppress such threatening notions of primal communication. Balancing indications of advanced age with the vibrancy that comes from vast spiritual resources, Warfield's performance connects Wilson's narrative to its roots in the mother continent.

Through Black Mary, Wilson has his audience consider their relationship to the past and the present. Kim Staunton imbues her with a tension that conveys both an interest in absorbing the wisdom and cultural memory that Ester has to offer and the will to make herself her own person. In one of the funniest moments of the evening, Ester's criticisms finally push Mary to the breaking point, prodding her to tell Ester where to get off, and Ester asks her, "What took you so long?"

Photo of Jamie Horton as Rutherford Selig and Harvy Blanks as Eli
Jamie Horton as Rutherford Selig
and Harvy Blanks as Eli
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Harvy Blanks' Eli is both a sentinel and a witness to the goings-on. An old hand at Wilson's work, Blanks speaks volumes with his mannerisms, letting us know just where he stands. In a sense, he is the ballast of this ship, throwing his weight in the direction that Wilson intends to take us.

What that direction is, Wilson makes apparent through Citizen Barlow, the playwright's everyman, whose journey we are asked to share in the hope that all former slaves and their descendents draw upon the strength of his vision in their fight for freedom, justice, and dignity.

Finally, Wilson makes his point, through Rutherford Selig, that racial peace and harmony is possible and desirable. Here, Wilson chooses to name one of the few white characters in his plays for both the U.S. President (Hayes), whose term signifies the end of reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow, and the German word for "blessed," leaving us to infer that forgiveness is, as Jesus said, the path to redemption.

When the torch is passed at the end of the play, we are indeed hopeful that—despite what has transpired and unlike what has falsely passed for scripture—Caesar is deprived of his due and what we render unto is something far greater than such an unworthy and hollow master as material gain.

Bob Bows

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