San Diego, CA---Noted playwright August Wilson will be remembered most by his epic “Pittsburgh Cycle” made up of 10 interrelated plays about the African-American experience, nine are set in the Pittsburgh Hills District. The plays trace that experience from the top of the 20th century 1904 with “Gem of the Ocean” and work their way through the decades ending with the 1990’s “Radio Golf”.
Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is mounting the San Diego Premiere of “Gem Of the Ocean” kicking off its 10th anniversary season. In 2008 Cygnet produced “Fences” one of the more popular of the cycle plays and in 2010 “The Piano Lesson” another oft produced play, was mounted here.
In an interesting side note his “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the first of the ‘Cycle’ plays Wilson wrote, but it was “Gem Of the Ocean” that started the century long tales as a young African-American named Citizen Barlow (Laurence Brown) finds himself in Pittsburgh after fleeing from the Jim Crow laws of Alabama and in a heap of trouble.
Barlow comes pounding on the door at 1839 Wylie Ave in the Hill District where Aunt Ester (Brenda Philips affecting but not compelling), Wilson’s 285-year-old spiritual healer, mystic and hold over from the past (who remembers when the first slave ships brought her people into bondage), works her magic.
“People say you crazy to remember. But I ain’t afraid to remember. I try to remember out loud. I keep my memories alive. I feed them. I got to feed them otherwise they’d eat me up. I got memories go way back. I’m carrying them for a lot of folk.”
It is said of Ester that she has the power to ‘wash peoples souls’ and is able to connect the past with the present, look into the future and heal the wounded souls by giving solace to those in need. So when Citizen Barlow confesses that he stole the bucket of nails (“I got a hole inside of me”) while working at the local steel mill, he pleads that she will steer him on the road to redemption.
She agrees, but in order to help he must collect items he will need for his journey to the so called City of Bones, a city built underwater in the Atlantic Ocean with bones of the slaves who lost their lives on the horrendous journey on their way to America.
Now Citizen Barlow must make that trip back in history to understand their suffering for him to be redeemed. His spiritual journey is on the legendary slave ship ‘The Gem Of the Ocean’.
Surrounding Aunt Ester are “Black” Mary Wilkes (Melva Graham is too low keyed) Ester’s housekeeper and healer/mystic in training who takes in laundry to earn extra money and Eli (Grandison M. Phelps III regal in his caring manner) Ester’s helper and protector especially from Mary’s brother Caesar Wilkes (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid making a very powerful impression), the local constable who rules with an iron fist. Their house is the hub of all the activities and where all the action in this story takes place.
Solly Two Kings (Antonio “TJ” Johnson in a plumb role just made for his larger than life personality and stature) a long ago slave runner on the underground railway and one of the characters that appear in more than one of Wilson’s plays has a serious crush on Aunt Ester. He is a regular at 1839 Wylie Street. You will recognize him by the large walking stick he carries. He let’s us know that the notches carved out on it are for every slave he saved.
Solly is a steel mill worker now with an axe to grind about how the blacks are being taken advantage of in the mills, so when the mill catches fire Caesar accuses Solly of arson. He comes looking for him at Aunt Ester’s where of course he is hiding. In his effort to escape Solly strikes Caesar with his walking stick and hurries out of the house. On his way out of town, a bullet from Caesar’s gun hits him.
Rutherford Selig (Ron Choularton), the only white character and the local pots and pans peddler comes to the rescue with his wagon. Solly Two Kings is smuggled out of town in it and brought back wounded in it. Black Mary and Aunt Ester clean his wounds but they prove to be fatal. It is here where they deliver his eulogy.
“Gem” is a talky show much more so than Wilson’s other plays (at least the ones I’ve seen). Director Victor Mack takes his time unraveling the several tales that come together (more or less) by act two. The lack of a single strong central character feels like a ship without a rudder that ambles making the two-hour plus production seem interminably long.
Outstanding in the lineup of characters, Antonio TJ Johnson, Laurence Brown and Mujhid Abdul-Rashid take home the prize for being most effective. Brown’s Citizen convinces as the troubled and worrisome young man full of nervous energy hopeful of finding salvation while Johnson is as assured of himself in this role as any seen in past performances. Newcomer to the San Diego scene, Abdul-Rashid is equally strong as the power hungry and strong arm of the law.
Ron Choularton, as always, proves to be convincing as is Phelps. The women fare less favorable. Melva Graham’s Mary did show some fine skills chopping celery while giving the what for to Citizen Barlow and Ms. Phillips Ester, while looking the healer, never convinced.
Andrew Hull’s authentic looking 1early 20th century homestead is well crafted giving a comfortable and inviting look and feel. Chris Rynne’s lighting design allows another dimension, especially focusing on the table with an assortment of candles that seemed to attract everyone entering and leaving the house. Shelly Williams’ clothes are period and character right overall.
In a sad twist of irony “Gem Of the Ocean”, so closely associated with the still open wounds of slavery and the beginnings of whatever freedoms Blacks found in the north when they arrived in Pittsburgh, this country still has not come to grips, so many years later, with the fact that the Civil War is over; emancipation happened.
The maligning of the first African-American President that seems OK in some parts of this country speaks volumes of the deep divide between those who still feel the need for a white dominated nation and those accepting change is as toxic now as it was then. Perhaps we all need a little guidance from the likes of Aunt Ester.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Feb. 24th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre Company
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4040 Twiggs St. Old Town
Ticket Prices: $19.00-$54.00