BWW Reviews: Hartford Stage¬'s GEM OF THE OCEAN Struggles with the Weight of History
August Wilson, the foremost dramatist of the African American experience, undertook an epic task with his 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle." His dramatic chronicle of the lives of black Americans tackles every decade of the 20th century, across 10 plays. It is a massive achievement. Some of the chapters in this decalogy stand among the classics of American Theatre, like Fences, The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Nearing the end of his life, Wilson tackled the bookends of his epic - Radio Golf closing out the century with the 1990s and Gem of the Ocean covering the first decade of the 1900s. As such, the first chapter was the second-to-last to be written. Unfortunately, these two titles stand among the weaker entries of the series.
Hartford Stage undertakes a sturdy revival of Wilson's 2004 Gem of the Ocean, a play that reveals the complexity of August Wilson's undertaking while groaning under the weight of accumulated history. Unlike the other plays in "The Pittsburgh Cycle" that this reviewer has seen, Gem of the Ocean strikes an uneasy balance of historical specificity (Pittsburgh in 1904) and a place in a mystical/spiritual continuum.
The ancient conjure woman and "soul-washer" Aunt Ester is, in fact, a real citizen of Pittsburgh's Hill District (August Wilson's birthplace). Living at 1839 Wiley Avenue, Aunt Ester (played as a wise shaman by Novella Nelson) serves as the local community's bedrock. Her home, "a house of sanctuary," is purposefully numbered 1839 - the year the slaves on the Spanish ship Amistad rose up against their captors and fought for their freedom (in a Hartford coutroom, no less). Aunt Ester's age - 285 - when deducted from the year of the play's action results in the year 1619, the year the slave trade reached American shores. The biblical Esther taught the Jews how to live in exile, much as Wilson's Aunt Ester teaches her African American Brothers and Sisters to survive in the diaspora.
Everything - yes, everything - is a symbol or an allegory in Gem of the Ocean. Aunt Ester's house, the clothes, the décor, the neighboring mill are all freighted with deeper significance. This adds a tremendous gravity to the proceedings and causes the audience to ponder, ponder, ponder while the action continues to plow ahead. It also means that it becomes hard to appreciate the characters as individuals. The actors, superlative one and all, work hard to create believable and dimensional figures. Unfortunately, each must battle some of the heavy-handed, twisty speeches that often render them mouthpieces.
Eli (named after a Biblical High Priest and played by Ernest Perry, Jr.) is building a wall to keep out Caesar (a blustering Ray Anthony Thomas), the unsubtly named local policeman and sell-out patsy for the white man's law and order. Solly Two Kings (the powerful Roger Robinson) carries a two-headed walking stick bearing the biblical kings David and Solomon (that doubles as a weapon of justice). Though formerly of royal lineage, he is now reduced to the life of an itinerant making a living selling dog excrement. A young man with a guilty conscience desperately in need of spiritual solace, Citizen Barlow (an excellent Stephen Tyrone Williams) is named for the freedom the slaves have earned, but have not received in America. Black Mary (portrayed by the piercing Joniece Abbott-Pratt) wears a blue dress and creates a Madonna-and-Child pieta with Citizen after his death and resurrection. The most straightforward character - Rutherford Selig (Christopher McHale) serves mostly as a plot device and a character bridge to the next installment in The Pittsburgh Cycle, Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
Director Hana Sharif fully embraces the mystical elements of a piece that chains the characters' destinies to their ancestors who came to America on slave ships, labored in bondage, escaped via the Underground Railroad, only to discover a false freedom awaiting. Aunt Ester's home, designed by Scott Bradley, is filled with overt and subtle references to African forebears and the slaves who created the heavenly City of Bones in the Atlantic by dying during their crossing. During the moment when the play flies furthest from reality, a "soul-washing" sequence where Citizen is confronted with his own weakness and embraces the strength of his ancestors' sacrifice, the set literally splits at the seams (although, the staging of this dynamic sequence is awkward and somewhat mutes the intended crescendo of the play).
Despite the efforts of all in this fine production, the play still feels overstuffed with Wilson grabbing at too many messages and too many pronouncements ("You gotta fight to make it mean something!", "Life is a mystery; life is an adventure!" "You have to leave America to find freedom!" "Your duty is to life!" etc...). After three hours of clobbering allegory and symbols (we are treated to Bible quotes, feet washing, William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanatopsis," and the deeper meanings of walking sticks, stone walls, pennies, bones, pieces of iron, paper boats, dog poop, nails and ropes in fairly rapid succession), I found myself thinking how a judicious tightening of the script could have yielded a more insightful experience.
The plotting and characters seem ancillary to the big statement required to launch a century-long expanse. If one was seeing this as the first of a 10-play endeavor (like Hartford Stage's excellent distillation of Horton Foote's Orphan's Home Cycle), you could write off some of the grand gestures as things that will pay off in smaller details in the later plays. As a stand-alone dramatic piece, Gem of the Ocean feels a bit adrift, not unlike the titular paper boat and the drifters who make their way in and out of Aunt Ester's "house of sanctuary." Although a stronger beginning than the weak ending that is Radio Golf, Hartford Stage's Gem proves to be a diamond in the rough.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.