BWW Review: GEM OF THE OCEAN at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre
August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" straddles allegory and realism of the African- American experience as it existed around the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the first decade of the 20th century. "Gem" is the fourth of the ten Wilson plays staged by Karen Paisley at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.
The lead character is ancient Aunt Ester (Sheri Rouletter-Mosely). She claims to be 287 years old. It is important to know that Aunt Ester's reported birthdate coincides with the arrival of the first transported African slaves to America.
"Gem" is the ninth of the ten plays (one for each decade) written by Wilson. Each play takes place near Pittsburgh, the playwright's hometown. Wilson died only two years and one play after he finished "Gem of the Ocean" in 2005 at age 60.
The ten plays are called the "Pittsburgh" or the "American" cycle. Two of the ten plays have earned Pulitzer Prizes. Wilson's stated intention was that was that the plays be performed in chronological order, despite the fact that this play was written late, it is at the beginning of the cycle in time.
The Civil War is fifty years in the rear view mirror. The setting is Aunt Ester's large house. The home seems to be a center for the African American community. Uber elderly Aunt Ester needs two assistants to maintain the home that is so important to her community. Ester takes on an almost liturgical role as she ministers to the community.
These attendants are Eli (Priest Holmes) and Black Mary (Shawna Pena-Downing). Eli is an older gentleman. He has revolved in Ester's orbit since before the emancipation. Eli takes his handyman and security roles very seriously. Black Mary is a younger woman. She cooks, cleans, and serves as house minion to Ester. She is still young enough to be attractive to several of the other characters. Ester is tough on Mary in the extreme because the icon sees something in Mary that she wants to nurture for the future using a brand of tough love.
Citizen Barlow (Lewis J. Marrow) is a younger man. He has never experienced the chains of chattel slavery. Barlow believes he has sinned. He has fled the Deep South. A container of nails has gone missing from a local mill. In the chase that followed the theft, there has been a death. Barlow is hungry, homeless, and less than well dressed. He has come to Ester in the hope of absolution.
The audience sees Barlow at first as brash. The play opens with a confrontation between Eli and Barlow. He wants to see Ester and NOW. Eli stands in his way and asks him to return the next week. Barlow will not wait. Eventually, Citizen Barlow gains entry through an Open Window and confronts Aunt Ester herself. She takes pity on him and offers food and a place to stay in exchange for the man's labor helping Eli. It is the beginning of Citizen Barlow's redemption.
Integrated with Citizen Barlow's is a second story line. The second story line expands on the black experience versus "the man" in 1904. It is raw. Black Mary's brother Caesar Wilkes (Jerron O'Neal) is a constable. He has traded his self-respect for earthly goods and become the voice and strong arm of the oppressive white world.
The cast is rounded out with two additional characters. Solly Two Kings (Granville O'Neal) is a former conductor on the "Underground Railroad." He has aspirations of making a match with Ester. He also has an aged sister who must be retrieved from their original home in the Deep South. His livelihood has been someone who collects dried dog excrement. This is not as outrageous as it seems at first. Many cultures have burned dried animal droppings as fuel. Solly becomes an important contributor to the second act.
Rutherford Selig (George Forbes) is a traveling peddler. His main function is as the deliverer of plot points during the show. Selig is a sharp dresser and a serial flirter.
"Gem of the Ocean" is a long, complicated, multi-layered piece. It is written in a dialect not too different from that used in Mark Twain's best pieces. "Gem" is very demanding of its cast and of its audiencE. Wilson has melded a mystical, cultural, history of African-American racial mistreatment onto one stage play to kick off his "American Cycle. It is an important contribution. Audiences will be required to enter upon journey of uncomfortable truths.
"Gem of the Ocean" is played on a mostly bare stage with vintage furniture and the effective suggestion of a set. The allegorical nature of the script makes this appropriate for this production. The dream sequence in Act II is especially well done.
"Gem of the Ocean" continues through March 11 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Tickets are available on the web at www.metkc.org or by telephone at 816-569-3226.
Photos by Bob Paisley