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"Gem of the Ocean" Shines in Boston

"Gem of the Ocean"

Written by August Wilson

Directed by Kenny Leon

Scenery designed by David Gallo

Costumes designed by Constanza Romero

Lighting designed by Donald Holder

Sound designed by Dan Moses Schreier

Music composed and arranged by Kathryn Bostic

Fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth

Cast in order of appearance:

Eli, Eugene Lee

Citizen Barlow, John Earl Jelks

Aunt Ester, Phylicia Rashad

Black Mary, LisaGay Hamilton

Solly Two Kings, Anthony Chisholm

Caesar, Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Performances: Now through October 30

Box Office: 617-266-0800 or

From its whimsical opening scene – which is perhaps the best this reviewer has experienced in more than 25 years of theatergoing – to its uplifting conclusion three hours later, Gem of the Ocean captivates its audience and never lets go. Long after the already set-for-Broadway production is over, August Wilson's elegantly written and eloquently performed play about the unbreakable bond between human freedom and spiritual truth still haunts and tantalizes.

Gem of the Ocean, which is currently in previews at the prestigious Huntington Theatre in Boston, is Wilson's ninth in what will be a 10-play cycle that chronicles, decade by decade, the African American experience through the 20th century. His epic series – which includes Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney and King Hedley II – is much more than a history lesson, however. Each play is a transformational journey of real people trying to make sense of – and make something good out of – their individual and collective lives.

As such, Gem of the Ocean may very well be the glittering jewel in Wilson's already impressive crown. With its soaring poetry and lyrical dialog, Gem brings the tale of a young black man's personal emancipation and spiritual redemption to vivid life.

Set in the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1904, Gem gives its central characters periodic sanctuary from the economic and social turmoil that swirls around them within the sturdy walls of 1839 Wylie Avenue, a "peaceful house" that harbored escaped slaves traveling north via the Underground Railway before and during the Civil War. Here the young Citizen Barlow seeks the help of the home's enigmatic and legendary owner Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old healer who reportedly can "wash his soul." Barlow, it seems, feels responsible for another man's death and wants to cleanse himself of his burden of guilt. The quick fix he seeks, however, leads Barlow on an unexpected metaphysical adventure, beyond the third dimension, across the Atlantic Ocean to the magical City of Bones.

Aunt Ester, played with exquisite charm, passion, wisdom and humor by the magnificent Phylicia Rashad, serves as navigator for Barlow's spiritual odyssey. Her shipmates and aides in bringing the troubled Barlow to enlightenment are her friends and disciples Eli, Black Mary, and Solly Two Kings. Each has benefited from Aunt Ester's powers in the past and now plays an important role in making her soon-to-be-lost first-hand memories of Black History living, breathing, never-forgotten realities in the hearts and minds of those born after Abolition.

Each character in Gem of the Ocean is richly drawn and intelligently expressed. While they all represent something bigger than themselves on the universal plane, they are also very real people as familiar to us in their strengths and imperfections as our own dear relatives and close friends.

Citizen Barlow is the next generation of African American adrift in a sea of frustration and disappointment with no spiritual center or community to anchor him. Played by the earnest and empathetic John Earl Jelks, Barlow is angered and confused by the opportunities afforded by the Industrial Revolution but still systematically restricted for young Black men. Jelks gives us a wounded innocent with potential for greatness beating ever so tentatively below the surface. At first Jelks' Barlow is a bit of a rascal who has not yet committed to any woman or worldly cause. Once he chooses truth over fear, however, his hero emerges quietly but confidently. With simple yet powerful conviction, he takes up the mantle for the future that is subsequently passed to him.

In contrast to Barlow's protagonist, the pompous and self-motivated Caesar is the play's antagonist. Both men are tormented by the fact that they are emancipated but not truly free, yet they take very different paths in their efforts to make good. The immensely talented Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the local opportunist and Napoleon-like Hill District law enforcer manages to make his "little Caesar" laughably despicable and at the same time likable. While representing the sometimes contemptible sellout to the pragmatic America that leaves gentler souls callously behind, Santiago-Hudson nevertheless gives us a deeply passionate survivor, a sympathetic and loving brother, and a driven "winner" all in one.

Anthony Chisholm as Solly Two Kings and Eugene Lee as Eli represent the older generation of Negro men who lived through the harsh realities of slavery but didn't let their subjugation break them. They were the revolutionaries who risked their lives to escape servitude, and then risked their lives again and again to help others do the same. Now, 40 years later, Solly still militantly battles injustices while Eli has become Aunt Ester's devoted caretaker. Chisholm and Lee both express their determination to see that Black History is never forgotten with great conviction – the first with biting wit, hellfire and brimstone, the second with a dignified reverence and sincerity that are unwavering. Chisholm is a marvelous interpreter of Wilson's inspiring prose, while Lee is the unflappable voice of reason who methodically keeps the day to day moving along.

LisaGay Hamilton plays the emerging free woman Black Mary who prefers working as a maid in the spiritually centered world of Aunt Ester's 1839 Wylie Avenue sanctuary to joining her brother Caesar in his money-driven boarding house and bakery sales schemes. Black Mary is the well educated and intelligent, but quietly acquiescent, heir apparent to Aunt Ester's Black Magic. When her enduring patience is ultimately tested, however – first by Citizen Barlow, then Aunt Ester, and finally Caesar – Hamilton lets loose and the audience cheers. The feisty suffragette in-the-making surfaces, and there's no turning back.

Like the wind in the sails of the origami ship that transports Citizen Barlow to the City of Bones, however, Phylicia Rashad is the mighty force that propels this Gem of the Ocean. She carries 285 years of history on her shoulders and speaks for all generations of African Americans, past, present and future. Her seamless transitions from mystical crone to impish instigator to weary shepherd are as magical as the spells her character Aunt Ester casts. Quite simply, Rashad is mesmerizing.

In Gem of the Ocean August Wilson has given us a richly crafted tapestry woven from centuries-old threads that cradles us in the wisdom, warmth and humor of thousands of people's interconnected lives. Director Kenny Leon has skillfully enabled his stellar cast to delicately unravel those precious threads to allow us a penetrating glimpse into each of their personal worlds while never losing site of the greater universe to which we all belong.

Gem of the Ocean is a masterpiece. August Wilson continues to prove that he is the consummate playwright of his time.

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