Gem of the Ocean

August Wilson
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Publicity image

Gem of the Ocean was the ninth play in August Wilson's epic sequence, depicting the Black American experience during the last century. It played on Broadway in late 2004, the centenary of the year in which it is set, and garnered five Tony nominations including one for Best Play.

Now it receives its British premiere, as part of the Tricycle Theatre's short season of African-American plays.

In the period between, having completed the final play in a series that defines his life as much as that of every other African-American, the playwright died at the early age of 60. This production therefore becomes the first British tribute to one of the great playwrights of his generation and any other.

It is pleasing to report that Paulette Randall's vision does the play great credit and, although on a less ambitious scale, bears comparison with its far more expensive Broadway sibling.

Gem of the Ocean is a rich play that contains hidden depths and has something of the power of a Greek tragedy or biblical epic. Designer Libby Watson has cleverly created a ramshackle hut in Pittsburgh, the home of all Wilson plays, which at a critical moment that gives the play meaning, magically transforms itself into the deck of a rickety boat.

The hut belongs to Aunt Ester, well realised by Carmen Munroe. She is the carrier of a 285 year old flame for her generation, the first that was released from slavery after abolition in 1865 (32 years after Great Britain) and was still alive by 1904.

Her male counterpart is Solly Two Kings, a pure (manure) salesman, given wonderful life by Joseph Marcell. He still has a deep affection for the woman that he loved but is now more concerned to rescue his sister, trapped in Alabama where race riots have made life dangerous and there is even talk of a return to slavery.

These two are balanced by three other characters born one or even two generations later. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith gives a gritty, committed performance as Citizen Barlow, named as an Everyman. He is the person who ultimately represents the black man moving forward into the 20th Century with all that that will offer to his community. First, though, he has to prove himself worthy, not an easy task for a man who arrives on the scene having killed one man and allowed another to die for his sins.

He immediately, and far too obviously, falls for the beautiful Black Mary. Jenny Jules' performance in this part seems far too modern, especially before the interval. She does though have a beautiful singing voice and plays anger well.

Black Mary had moved in with Aunt Ester three years before, following a fight with her brother (Patrick Robinson's Caesar) who is really more of a little Hitler. This poacher turned gamekeeper happily betrays his community in his role as law-enforcement officer.

While Aunt Ester has achieved an inner peace, the play follows Solly's attempt to do likewise, while the younger generation must learn about life the hard way as they journey, both literally and metaphorically, towards the first stage of maturity.

Gem of the Ocean lasts for three hours but feels less and needs that time to develop all of its themes. Its key message is that "freedom is what you make it" but it also looks at truth, the meaning of life and the Black American experience in a period when slavery had given way to prejudice and fear.

This is a special play and one sincerely hopes that a West End producer will take a chance on transferring it to a larger auditorium at the end of this run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher