Playwright August Wilson knows how to draw in an audience immediately. It's 1904, and Citizen Barlow (Timothy Dickson) has run away from the racial terrors of Alabama to find solace in Pittsburgh. Once there, he's so desperate to see the wise, all-knowing Aunt Ester (Bebe Wilson, no relation) that, when told to come back in a few days, he breaks into her house. "I can't wait," he pleads. He must have his "soul washed" immediately, and mythical Aunt Ester's the only one who can do it. With its dramatic jumble of religious fervor, magical realism and homespun truth, this dynamic opening to the incomparable Gem of the Ocean, in a shatteringly effective production at Ensemble Theatre, is the beginning of a journey into knowledge, awareness and fulfillment. Some make it; some don't. Aunt Ester can only help Citizen so far, and then it's up to him.
Gem is the first play in Wilson's monumental ten-drama series chronicling the American black experience during the 20th century, with one work for each decade. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (the '20s) and Pulitzer Prize winners The Piano Lesson (the '30s) and Fences (the '50s) are three of his most esteemed plays. Gem introduces us to Aunt Ester, a mysterious legend among African-Americans in Pittsburgh. The one character that appears throughout the series, she's part shaman, part medicine man and part voodoo queen, and she's always mentioned with love and respectful awe.
This profoundly written character is such a formidable presence (and limned with such a wonderfully cranky, no-nonsense performance by Wilson) that we have no trouble at all believing she's 287 years old. Ester is the primal connection to that first slave ship from Africa, and the playwright's abiding tribute to the indomitable human spirit. Although she represents the black experience writ as prodigious testament to survival, tribulation and sheer gumption, this grand Earth Mother is life incarnate. She envelops Wilson's drama with a disparate mix of symbolism, allegory and plain old-fashioned storytelling. She warns Citizen with a warm chuckle, "You on an adventure. You signed up for it and didn't even know it." His adventure has just begun.
Gem of the Ocean
Ensemble Theatre, 3535Main, 713-520-0055.
Through February 24. $15-$35.
Citizen's not the only one on a quest out of personal bondage. Wilson fills his canvas with a rich panoply of earthy seekers and mystical explorers. Solly Two Kings (a granite-solid Clarence Whitmore) is the randy suitor to Aunt Ester, and Eli (an equally down-to-earth Byron Jacquet) is her steadfast guardian. They're both survivors of slavery and former members of the Underground Railroad who led escaped slaves out of the South into free Canada. Like Ester, they keep the flame of memory alive. Solly's walking stick is notched with the scores of people he saved.
Black Mary (a fiercely determined Autumn Knight), Ester's young protégé who doubles as her housekeeper, is independent but wary. She's been with many men, yet yearns to find one as strong as she is. Drawn to her banked inner fire, Citizen comes on to her with transparent macho posturing, and she slaps him down with, "You got something new? I've seen it all."
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There's also Caesar (gravel-voiced Troy Hogan), Black Mary's brother, who has subverted his new freedom by turning his back upon his own people. An opportunist out for a quick buck, he's also the neighborhood constable; he lives strictly by the law and will brook no infraction. When a black steel mill worker accused of stealing a bucket of nails drowns himself in the river rather than falsely confess, Caesar's hard heart allows him no sympathy or forgiveness. Caesar is another elemental force in the thick tapestry that Wilson spins; this force must be squarely faced, if never entirely overcome.
To be fair in his portrait of the black struggle, Wilson supplies a decent white man in itinerant peddler Selig (a sympathetic John Williams Stevens), whose unselfish action helps the family in their direst need.
While all seven characters meld and collide in their reactions to freedom, the heart of Gem is Citizen's phantasmagoric trip to the City of Bones, the underwater repository of the slaves who died while undergoing the infamous "Middle Passage." Conducted by Aunt Ester, it's his rite of passage. Citizen can never be free if he can't remember the pain of the past. In shimmering, watery projections and a few harrowing photographs of the living hell below decks, he faces his demons. "Remember me," the tormented wail. "They all look like me!" he screams in horror.
One of the most humanistic of playwrights, Wilson fills Gem with grace, bawdy humor, substantial religiosity and a deep love of people, whatever their faults. In this glorious work, made even more expansive through Allie Woods's layered direction, redemption is only the first step to wholeness. Being free isn't just throwing off your chains and stepping into the light. Memories can hold you back and weigh you down as easily as they can lift you up. To live in truth, as Ester proves, is to remember it all.