August Wilson’s Century Cycle (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, though Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago) remains one of the monumental achievements in American drama. Chuck Smith’s current Goodman revival of Gem of the Ocean, chronologically the first in Wilson’s decade-by-decade exploration of Black American history in the 20th century, takes us on a journey every bit as sorrowful and profound as the one Citizen Barlow (Sharif Atkins) makes to the City of Bones—a mystical place in the center of the ocean, built from the remains of those Africans who died in the Middle Passage.
Gem of the Ocean
Through 2/27: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 2/6 and Tue 2/15, 7:30 PM; no show Wed 2/2 or 2 PM Thu 2/10, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$80.
But the genius of Wilson, which Smith (who served as dramaturg for the Goodman’s 2003 world premiere of Gem) understands well, is that his characters exist in several places simultaneously: past and present, myth and reality, cities of bones and cities, like Pittsburgh in 1904, of steel and blood and turmoil. And all those places matter.
Citizen’s first name reflects one of Wilson’s key dilemmas: how do Black Americans find their place as citizens of a nation that enslaved them and continues to deny them their full rights and humanity? He comes in search of healing and “soul washing” to the home of Aunt Ester (Lisa Gaye Dixon), the sage woman who is allegedly almost 300 years old and whose presence is felt in nearly all the plays in the cycle (she dies in the 1980s-set King Hedley II). But she’s a central presence here as she guides Citizen toward an understanding of his destiny. In Dixon’s performance, she’s also funny, warm, and a bit of a trickster. The rest of the cast, especially Atkins and Sydney Charles as Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s surrogate daughter; A.C. Smith as Eli, her loyal lieutenant; and James A. Williams as Solly Two Kings, the classic Wilson vagabond outsider with hardwon insight on his side, flesh out this epic story with urgency, wit, and a sure hand with Wilson’s poetic vernacular.