Liz and I went to see August Wilson’s The Gem Of The Ocean at ACT last night, directed by Reuben Santiago-Hudson (of Lackawanna Blues fame). As with all productions I’ve seen at ACT, it was a mixed bag, most of which I attribute to a one-note performance turned out by Michele Shaw, the actress playing Aunt Ester. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The Gem Of The Ocean is set in Pittsburgh in 1904, and is the penultimate (in writing order) and first (chronologically) in Wilson’s epic project to write a play about the lives of black Americans for every decade in the 20th century. As with many of Wilson’s plays, the stories of individuals are played out against the background of social and political events. In the case of Gem it is worsening work conditions at a mill that employs many of the black citizens that causes a walkout. A man was accused of stealing a bucket of nails and drowned himself rather than admit to the crime he did not do. At the top of the play a young man from Alabama, Citizen Barlow, tries to get help from Aunt Ester, an old matriarch who is said to “clean people’s souls.” She takes him on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones so he can confront his guilt and fill the hole in his soul.
I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but the other characters are what really make the play sparkle. Ester lives with Black Mary, a strong woman who seems to be Ester’s mentee, and Eli, a former Underground Railroad worker. Solly Two Kings, another escaped slave, is a frequent visitor to the house, and constantly reminds Barlow that there is still a war to be fought for rights and citizenship in the US. The villain of the piece, Caesar, is Black Mary’s brother, a self-made entrepreneur who is charged by the city with keeping the law. His zeal for the job puts him at odds with his own community as he makes ourageous statements like “some niggers were better off under slavery.”
What works about a play like Fences (Wilson’s 1950’s play) is that the social context of the play is integral to all of the characters — they are all inextricably caught up in the movements of their time. Here, by contrast, Ester is almost divorced from reality, and Shaw’s performance brings out the spiritual wanderings and tones down the groundedness. Indeed, it is in those moments where Ester is not having a deep metaphysical connection that Shaw runs roughshod over the lines — her Ester is two people, a priestess and a pushy old woman.
The rest of the cast is significantly better. In particular, Steven Anthony Jones as Solly Two Kings dominated the stage and there was a fire behind his performance that was hard to match. Roslyn Ruff brought that quiet intensity to her performance that was so lacking in Shaw. The actor playing Barlow, Owiso Odera, was the great surprise of the evening — especially when he committed to the unreality of the City of Bones sequence.
There’s more I want to write about the politics in the play, but I’ll wait until I read it. In particular, Caesar is a kind of stand-in for Alan Keyes or Clarence Thomas, a tool of the law rather than a shaper. The juxtaposition (and conflict) between him and the truly radical and revolutionary Solly Two Kings was uneven — a little man with a gun versus a big man who had one notch on his walking stick for each of the over 60 slaves he helped to free. Wilson is telling us that in 1904 it was clearer than it is now how much work is left to be done — slavery wasn’t so long ago and the wounds were fresh. When Caesar comes with a warrant for Ester, she tells him that she has a piece of paper too, her bill of sale. Just because the law’s written on paper, she reminds him, “don’t make it right.”