By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
The Book of Ecclesiastes notwithstanding, generally speaking there’s not a whole lot new under the sun. That’s especially true in the world of theater – which may come as a shock to those urgent artistes who, right now, are sure they’ve come up with a brand new way of staging, say, The Merchant of Venice
But even taking into consideration just how jaded I am, I found myself surprisingly moved and perhaps even a bit transfixed at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.
Gem of the Ocean continues through September 22. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, Hill District.www.pghplaywrights.org/gem/
As you certainly ought to know by now, Pittsburgh native August Wilson wrote 10 plays focusing on the African-American experience in the 20th century; one play per decade. Collectively they’re known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle” as nine of the 10 are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
One of the characters woven through the decalogy is “Aunt Ester.” In the last play, Radio Golf, (set in the 1990’s) Aunt Ester, a former slave, dies at the spritely age of 385. (That’s not a typo.)
At the other end, Gem of the Ocean begins the Cycle, taking place in 1904. (Although chronologically it’s the ninth Wilson wrote in the series.) The play is set in Aunt Ester’s home– 1839 Wylie Avenue to be precise. And Mark Clayton Southers, artistic director of PPTC and Pittsburgh’s resident showman, had the genius idea to build an outdoor stage and present Gem of the Ocean on the grassy lot that is 1839 Wylie Avenue.
It was a beautiful night when I went. A gorgeous blue sky with an amazing shelf of bruised purple clouds hanging above. Sitting in a plastic lawn chair on the sloping yard, Aunt Ester’s parlor was in front of me, but off to the side I could see the Lower Hill, the Duquesne University Bluff and, in the distance, the South Side slopes. That fact that I was about to watch one of the most important American plays written in the last 25 years while sitting in the exact setting of that play was … well Southers, in his pre-show speech, called it hallowed ground and I have to say that’s exactly how it felt.
Gem in the story of Citizen Barlow, a young man from Alabama only in town a few weeks but showing up at Aunt Ester’s because he has heard she can “wash souls” and he’s carrying the enormous unseen burden of an unclean secret.
People could – and probably have – written doctoral theses on what Aunt Ester represents in Wilson’s work … so I’m not even gonna try. But I will venture a guess and say that everyone in Gem is there because, in one way or another, they need her mystical ability (and all it represents) to heal their broken selves.
Solly Two Kings and Eli are former conductors on the Underground Railroad. Both – former slaves – are now living in a time of “freedom” but knowing that word has little meaning for black people living in white America.
Black Mary is learning to locate her voice and sense of purpose under Ester’s tutelage, having sought refuge in her Wylie Ave. home three years ago when her brother, Caesar allowed his authentic self to be smothered when the “justice system” deputized him to control the “colored” element. The little power they’ve given him has, in turn, corrupted and condemned him.
The more I see Gem the more I understand how intensely crafted it is, almost incomprehensibly layered with intent and meaning. All of the characters are compelling and dramatically rewarding (not necessarily true of all the Cycle plays) and of course everything’s wrapped up in Wilson’s singular – and singularly beautiful – theatrical poetry.
As she has in many productions before, Chrystal Bates serves as the rock-solid center, here playing Aunt Ester. Bates has a way of expressing enormous strength in even her most quiet moments immediately drawing us into the action. Kevin Brown prowls the stage as Solly like a lion claiming his territory with Les Howard providing the calming counterpoint as Eli.
Jonathan Berry gets the fireworks role of Citizen and, especially in the “City of Bones” sequence, rivets our attention to the horror unfolding. Wali Jamal is a fiery Caesar and brings to the character an intriguing unpredictability.
As Black Mary Candace Walker gives a shaded, slightly secretive performance that can beguile and Marcus Muzopappa brings a great deal of presence to what could easily be a negligible role.
There is no question of the regard, if not reverence, director Andrea Frye has for Wilson’s work and the attention to the text she brings to this production. Such esteem does have a slight downside – it sometimes feels as if everyone involved knows that they are Presenting a Classic and the stately pace of the production should, maybe, be kicked up a notch or two.
Having gone on at some length about the wonder of this al fresco production, it feels funny to add that this site-specific performance has a few downsides as well. There’s a great deal of distraction; helicopters, police sirens, neighborhood folks having fun, bugs and spiders spinning silver threads … and Gem of the Ocean is a work requiring 100% focus. I can’t say that, at any point, I found myself completely immersed in the world of the play.
But the great thing is that Gem of the Ocean is so good and so important, this won’t be the last time Aunt Ester gets the chance to grab us by the throat. And I’ve no doubt that Southers and PPTC will be providing that opportunity. But in the meantime, it’s your only chance to see a play taking place at 1839 Wylie Ave. while sitting at 1839 Wylie Ave. I bet you Wilson scholars world-wide are green with envy.