At Trinity: Gem of the Ocean gleams and cuts deep
August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is on stage in Trinity Rep’s Elizabeth and Malcom Chace performance space upstairs at the Lederer Theater, 201 Washington Street, Providence through March 27.
Set in 1904 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it comes first chronologically in the much-acclaimed ten play American Century Cycle by Wilson. The prodigious series chronicles each decade of the African American experience over the course of the 20th century.
In the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilson’s sure hands this rich and textured play manages to be mythic and allegorical at the same time that it is naturalistic. There is such a wealth of cultural symbolism, historical facts, and spiritual metaphors that it is a challenge to digest it all in the two-and-a-half-hour course of the play.
At the story’s center is 285-year-old Aunt Ester, a former slave who is known for her power to cleanse souls. A quick mental calculation reveals that she was born in 1619, the year that the first African slaves arrived in the country which was to become the United States, coming as terrified captives, treated as commodities, and subjected to de-humanizing conditions.
Aunt Ester’s personal journey from chattel to mystic seer spans the arc of race relations and racial identity formation in America both before and after the formal establishment of the nation.
As the play opens, the tone is set by “Solly” Two-Kings, a former slave and survivor of violence and abuse, who we learn is a veteran of the Underground Railroad. He also was a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War. Solly has been scarred and tempered by his encounters and left adamantly defiant but wary.
He limps from his days on a chain gang, and he carries a link from the shackles he was forced to wear. He also carries a large walking stick on which there are 62 notches representing the 62 slaves he led to freedom on the underground railroad.
As he makes his entrance when the play begins, he is singing “Going home to the Graveyard.” The scene is 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Aunt Ester has gathered a small cadre of acolytes and receives those who come seeking her help. She has had four husbands, but Solly has hopes of marrying her.
She and Solly are like lodestars showing the way to the past and future of Black people in America. Solly represents the more practical, historic aspects of the fight to survive and prevail against Jim Crow laws and oppression. Aunt Ester is the voice and interpreter of the mythos that sustains them all spiritually during the struggle. They are the voices of experience and suffering, endurance and hope.
Living in the house with Aunt Ester are her housekeeper Black Mary and her caregiver Eli, a cohort of Solly from his Underground Railroad days.
The catalyst which ignites the conflict in the play is the arrival at 1839 Wylie Avenue of one Citizen Barlow, a young and ambitious man from Alabama, who has a gnawing secret that is driving him to seek absolution through Aunt Ester.
Citizen, as he is called, is torn apart by guilt over his part in the suicide of a fellow worker at the local mill who was accused of stealing a bucket of nails and drowned himself in the river rather than face being arrested. Barlow is desperate for Aunt Ester to practice her magic on him. At first, he doesn’t have any idea of what that will entail.
Aunt Ester is apt to speak oracularly, saying things like “Life is a mystery,” and “I keep my memories alive. I feed them,” and “Sometimes it’s hard to tell bad luck from good luck.”
She tells Citizen Barlow, “Love will go a long way to making you right with yourself.”
While Citizen Barlow waits for her to begin the washing of his soul, we find out about the lives and struggles of Black Mary, Eli, and Solly, and we meet Caesar Wilks, Black Mary’s brother. Rutherford Selig is the sole white character in the play. He is an itinerant peddler and friend of Aunt Ester, who tries to help her and the others.
Caesar is a constable and carries a big pistol prominently on his hip. Law and order and a heart animated by avarice coupled with a compulsion for control are his hallmarks. Proud as he is as a Black man with a modicum of authority in the white-dominated culture, he is perpetually on edge, his hair trigger temper and cruel mien trumping all other instincts.
He is murderous in the pursuit of his duties, having killed a boy for stealing a loaf of bread. His lust for money and status mean that he clings fiercely to his small quotient of power, alienating his sister and antagonizing Solly and Citizen Barlow, both of whom he suspects of breaking the law.
The interactions of all the characters conspire to create a tapestry that reveals the oppressiveness of life in early 20th century America. The false promise of the emancipation of Blacks in 1863 is becoming impossible to deny. Religion and the supernatural emerge as options which offer comfort and hope.
So, when Aunt Ester sets in motion the procedure of cleansing Citizen Barlow’s soul, she invokes metaphors that give metaphysical significance to the steps he must take. These involve a dream journey on a slave ship named The Gem of the Ocean. The destination is the mythical City of Bones, “the center of the world.” Everything is made of bones, Ester tells Barlow. At the apogee of his cleansing, he meets the man whose death he caused, and he is able to make peace with himself. Both an ordeal and a liberation, the process is both a symbolic unburdening and expiation of his guilt.
It frees his conscience, but it doesn’t erase the torment of being a suspect in the eyes of Caesar, and we realize his future is uncertain at best. The fates of the others at Aunt Ester’s house are in the balance as well. Anxiety and insecurity is the lot of Black people in America in 1904. Isn’t it still, this production, this play asks.
In the bold hands of director Jude Sandy Gem of the Ocean is compelling and definitive. It burns with conviction and pulses with energy.
As Aunt Ester, Rose Weaver returns to the Trinity Rep stage triumphantly. You can’t take your eyes off her as she inhabits the character with every fiber of her being. Consummate professional that she is, she brings all of her enormous talent, including her singing, to bear as she creates an unforgettable piece of theater history at Trinity.
In equal measure, former company member Ricardo Pitts-Wiley limns an indelible Solly Two-Kings, calling on great skills that provide nuances and texture to his portrayal. To be able to watch these two veterans of so many years in this market headline a production so brilliantly is a privilege.
Derek Thomas is superb and appropriately self-contained as Eli. Liz Morgan excels as Black Mary, deftly and implicitly conveying the hardships and frustrations of a younger Black woman and the bitter response to the objectification and exploitation that confined her options.
Joe Wilson, Jr. plays Caesar Wilks as a bitter man, acidic with anger, his need for control consuming him. He makes the character frighteningly believable, and truly repulsive, which is just right. Of course, by now regular viewers of Trinity are surely convinced he can play any part and own it.
As Citizen Barlow, Christopher Lindsay, a fourth-year actor in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, brings a youthful talent center stage. His skills are compelling, and he gives a fine account of himself.
As Rutherford Selig, Mauro Hantman, a veteran actor in his 23rd year as a member of the Trinity acting company, makes a secondary role significant, and demonstrates his mastery.