Gem of the Ocean

August Wilson
Walter Kerr Theater
New York

Phylicia Rashad and John Earl Jelks in a scene from Gem of the Ocean (photo by Carol Rosegg)

With Gem of the Ocean, August Wilson is now reaching the close of his epic series of plays recording life in Colored/Black/African America during the last century. Along the way, he has established himself as the finest living African-American playwright and one of today's best writers.

This is the ninth play in the sequence but the earliest in terms of its setting. It takes place in 1904, in the smoke-blackened, almost Gothic home of Aunt Esther, played by The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashid, acting beautifully but looking rather young for the octogenarian part.

She is a special person, a matriarch with a very strong character and, at times, almost superhuman powers. She has the ability to "wash people's souls".

Remarkably, some forty years after emancipation, the play focusses on a period when subjugation of the "colored" people was still the norm. In Pittsburgh, where the action takes place, Negro lives are cheap and it is acceptable to kill a man for stealing a few nails. Further south in Alabama, things are far worse and the attitudes there prefigure Nazi Germany.

In this climate, Wilson is able to explore moral and human issues in a play of great depth and power. He assists himself by surrounding Aunt Esther with a weird collection of eccentric but mainly lovable characters, colourfully and unforgettably dressed by Constanza Romero.

The older generation, who still remember the days when they were shackled as slaves, are led by the excellent Anthony Chisolm's constantly-grimacing Solly Two-names. He looks like a whiskered sea captain from a much earlier time, sells "pure" which is anything but and has a soft spot for Aunt Esther. His primary concern though is a final 1,600 mile round trip on foot to rescue his sister, blockaded in Alabama where his people are suffering "the worst time since bondage".

While Solly and Aunt Esther represent freedom, an Uncle Tom character - Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the power-crazed, bumptious Caesar (Wilson sometimes uses names like Dickens) - is an authoritarian who debates his case with gusto.

He is a sheriff who would be comic if he wasn't so dangerous. After a moment of pure Ibsen when a mill symbolically burns down, blood will inevitably flow as he searches for a culprit.

Hope is represented by a younger generation. Citizen Barlow and Caesar's sister Black Mary, played by John Earl Jelks and Lisagay Hamilton respectively, will take on the baton into future generations. For this, the former has to go through a strange out-of-body journey into his own soul and that of his people, on a paper boat named The Gem of the Ocean. It takes a long time but Black Mary too eventually takes control of her own destiny.

For 2¾ hours, Wilson holds the attention, using almost biblical language and a rich, multi-layered plot that could be seen as underpinning the whole of his monumental series of plays.

Here are the parents and grandparents of so many of the memorable characters who appear over the following nine decades, by the end of which the Black experience may not be perfect but is thankfully far, far away from the terror depicted in Gem of the Ocean.

August Wilson has already received many awards and honours. It would seem appropriate that when he concludes his task, he should get the ultimate accolade of a Nobel Prize. Nothing less would be do him justice.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher