Gem of the Ocean

Goodman Theatre

In every generation one must see oneself as though having personally come forth from Egypt. –Passover Haggadah

One is amazed. Here’s August Wilson after nine plays and 20 years, so near the end of his epic attempt to chronicle African-American life in each decade of the 20th century; here he is, closing in on one of the great imaginative gestures in contemporary theater, having created his own Yoknapatawpha County of the black urban experience. You’d think this latest work would project an aura of valediction appropriate to the moment. A sense of crossing the Jordan, or at least having it in sight. But no. Script number nine turns out to be a big bulging mess of folklore, philosophy, allegory, history, love, hate, legal debate, horror, mysticism, ritual, prayer, allusion, illusion, delusion, gorgeous songs, extended jokes about dog shit, and plain (as well as elaborate) crankiness. Far from bringing the project toward some kind of magisterial close, Gem of the Ocean conveys a sense of the author playing beat the clock, desperately trying to stuff everything he knows into the skin of a grand and yet somehow inadequate conceit. Even after three hours the play seems not so much to end as to force itself to stop. It’s an awkward, often trying piece of work.

But surprisingly deliberate, too. For all its logorrheic digressiveness, Gem of the Ocean is out to achieve something very specific. And magnificent. And so wildly ambitious that the question of whether or not it actually succeeds seems completely beside the point.

It’s 1904, 40 years plus 1 since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, 40 years minus 1 since the end of the Civil War. A black wisewoman called Aunt Ester lives in a big house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District ghetto, tended by old Eli and a kind of laundress/disciple, Black Mary. Though she claims to be 285 years old, Ester is courted by Solly Two Kings, just 67–a veteran of the Underground Railroad who wears a Civil War-vintage greatcoat, carries a tall staff, and woos Ester with gifts of aged dog turds guaranteed to make her tomatoes grow like crazy. Glowering around the edges of this hodgepodge family is Caesar, Black Mary’s appropriately named martinet of a brother who’s achieved a degree of success by alternately preying on “the People” of the Hill District and keeping them in line.

Enter Citizen Barlow, an unsophisticated if not entirely innocent farm boy just two weeks up from Alabama. Tormented by guilt over the unintended consequences of something he’s done, Citizen begs Ester to “wash” his soul clean. Her consent sends him on a journey across a spiritual ocean, toward a place called the City of Bones.

It’s not hard to parse the basic metaphors. Solly, the old railroad guide, is a Moses figure. The period of plagues and wonders is 40 years in the past, and the generation of slaves–all save the eternal Aunt Ester–is nearing extinction. Tainted by the stink of his servility despite the heroism with which he met life in the wilderness, Solly cannot cross into the Promised Land. That’s a privilege reserved for Citizen–the child of freedom, the black Joshua. All of this is as conventional as it is obvious; just think of the old spiritual “Go Down, Moses.”

What’s remarkable are the crucial twists Wilson works on these symbols. Citizen’s path to liberation isn’t just a leap into the future but a regression into the past; the trip across the Jordan and the Middle Passage are the same, and he has to suffer one to achieve the other. Far more important even than this paradox, however, is the fact that Wilson is not content merely to recount or dramatize Citizen’s journey. He enacts it as ritual instead. As a shamanistic ceremony of soul travel. In effect, Wilson creates an animist seder and sticks it into the heart of his play.

Which is a marvelous, wild thing to behold–and, at some level, participate in. All the more so because Donald Holder’s lighting design, with its wave shimmer and long slivers of sunlight, goes so far toward creating the physical and psychic ambience of a slave-ship hold. Holder’s light very nearly compensates for Kenny Leon’s inadequate performance as Citizen; emphasizing the galoot in the character, Leon fails to encompass the subtler, slier, nastier tones that Wilson wrote into him.

There’s also compensation to be found in David Gallo’s set, which seems alive with rot at times, like something in an Ivan Albright painting. And much more than compensation in Greta Oglesby’s amazing Aunt Ester, whose rocklike self-possession and geological singing voice make it utterly believable that the woman’s nearly three centuries old. Paul Butler embodies the courage of the householder as Eli, quietly aiming his shotgun as and when the need arises. Peter Jay Fernandez cuts Caesar’s ramrod self-assurance with just the right tincture of self-pity. And Anthony Chisholm is a skinny length of steel as Solly Two Kings, edging toward Mount Nebo.

Director Marion McClinton may very well deserve some of the credit for these fine performances and design choices, but he must also accept some of the responsibility for a crucial shortcoming of this production–its extreme and profligate talkiness. Charming though Wilson’s long-winded idiosyncrasy may be in the abstract, it can become a redundant, rhythm-wracking bore onstage. McClinton may find it difficult to call a writer of Wilson’s stature on issues like this, but it’s precisely Wilson’s stature that makes the need for intervention so crucial: there’s a heritage at stake.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.