Gem Of The Ocean is the ninth work by August Wilson, the Pulitzer-winning American playwright who died last year, in his 10 play cycle about the African American experience. With each work he depicted a particular decade of the last century, but though the ninth, this is chronologically the earliest, set as it is in 1904, a time when slavery still cast a long shadow and people still carried memories of the Civil War.
For such a huge creative undertaking it was inevitable that standards would vary from play to play and as a stand-alone piece of theatre Gem Of The Ocean is undoubtedly flawed. But its characters are well-rounded, its social observation sharp, and though certain aspects of the drama pose problems, it succeeds in sucking you in.
Set in Pittsburgh – the same location as the previous plays in the cycle – Gem Of The Ocean focuses on one run-down house in the town’s Hill District, a sanctuary of sorts, presided over by the enigmatic but tender Aunt Ester. Believing she can help him, Citizen Barlow, a young man weighed down with guilt after letting another man take the blame for a crime he committed, turns up on her door hoping to have his “soul washed.”
The play paints an engaging picture of the plight of African Americans at the turn of the last century, where freedom was very much a relative term. And Paulette Randall’s layered production does a fine job of bringing Wilson’s carefully constructed world to the stage, though at times it feels overly reverent. The first hour of the play does rather drag and it’s only after the interval that the production really starts to exert a hold on its audience.
The quality of the performances is uniformly excellent. Carmen Munroe exudes charm and wisdom as the respected Aunt Ester, a woman who claims to be almost 300 years old and Jenny Jules has a quiet pride as her young companion Black Mary. Joseph Marcell demonstrates both strong comic skills and palpable passion as Solly Two Kings, a man who initially seems a figure of fun but who it turns out was once instrumental in the underground railroad and who still has much fight left in him. Patrick Robinson is also memorable in his brief turn as the unswayable Caesar, a man for whom the law is everything.
Towards the end of the play, we are presented with the ‘cleansing’ of Citizen – a process that transports him back to the confines of the slave ship. It’s a scene that’s striking on many levels, and well handled by Randall, but it seems a little heavy-handed. The play already conveys much about struggle, survival and the need to move forward, but not to forget, without this episode. It’s the subtler moments – Black Mary standing up, in different ways, to her overbearing brother Caesar and to Ester – that really strike a chord.
This production of Gem Of The Ocean is the second play in Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre’s short season of African American dramas (following on from last month’s Walk Hard – Talk Loud; to be followed by Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation). All three are set to feature the same company of actors; and a strong ensemble chemistry is already evident which bodes very well indeed for the third instalment.