If you desperately miss the transporting power found in the plays of August Wilson—and what theater lover doesn’t?—head directly to Old City, where Arden Theatre Company currently presents a breathtaking revival of Gem of the Ocean. A late-career entry into Wilson’s Century Cycle, it contains in one work the combination of magisterial grandeur and clear-eyed realism that defines the playwright, who died at the far-too-young age of 60 in 2005.
Chronologically, Gem comes first in the cycle, which chronicles African American life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District across the 20th century. It also serves as a skeleton key of sorts for many of his other plays. The name of the central character, Aunt Ester (Zuhairah), is invoked at regular intervals in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Jitney, and King Hedley II, among others. Speak it aloud slowly and you’ll hear the clever yet profound gravity Wilson embeds in her—she is the ancestor of his entire world.
300 years later
The early days of the transatlantic slave trade captured Aunt Ester and enslaved her in the US. When the play opens, in 1904, her age hovers just shy of 300. That isn’t a typo. We are inside an August Wilson play, after all, where our eyes disprove our minds at every turn.
After escaping bondage, Aunt Ester became the spiritual leader of Pittsburgh’s black community, and we first meet her in that role. She councils Citizen Barlow (Akeem Davis), another refugee from the Deep South, who finds himself needing salvation in the wake of a devastating act. His redemption involves a journey to the City of Bones—an island in the middle of the ocean, forged from the remains of enslaved people.
Citizen’s excursion forms one of the most overwhelming emotional experiences in recent theater, a voyage that limns the physical and spiritual worlds. Director James Ijames, set and lighting designer Thom Weaver, and sound designer Daniel Ison render it here with heart-stopping immediacy. It’s a voyage to the center of the soul, and the center of the past—places, Wilson suggests, that need to be understood in order for us to move forward.
Yet the gravity in the drama goes well beyond visual coup-de-théâtre. Each character in the play wrestles with his or her relationship to their personal history, as well as the history of their country and community. Surely this stands true for Aunt Ester, who has borne witness to the slow progress of American life across generations from a front-row seat. Zuhairah imbues her performance with a formidable, silent presence that communicates the weight she has carried throughout her life.
Ijames draws rich, characterful acting from his entire company, forming a tapestry as intricately woven as the patchwork quilt Aunt Ester calls her “map.” As her assistants, Steven Wright (Eli) and Danielle Leneé (Black Mary) give voice to a new generation’s respect for tradition and the wisdom of the ages. Leneé particularly excels as a moral voice raised against the punishing push toward capitalistic cold-heartedness embodied by her brother Caesar (Bowman Wright), an entrepreneur and lawman who believes a person’s worth doesn’t extend beyond his wallet.
Brian Anthony Wilson brings gregarious warmth to Solly Two Kings, a formerly enslaved Underground Railroad conductor whose experiences living in bondage shaped his compassionate worldview. Solly feels understandable indignation at the unfair state of the world for African Americans decades after emancipation, and Wilson seamlessly transitions to stentorian authority when recalling his struggles to gain freedom. Solly’s monologue about the conflicted feelings that accompanied his escape from subjugation while others remained enslaved surely stands among Wilson’s best monologue writing.
Citizen represents that conflicted divide between nominal freedom, segregation, and societal oppression—Wilson gives him a moving monologue too, about the pain a black man is expected to shoulder as he tries to move ahead in the world. Davis brings the lyrical, compassionate qualities he’s displayed in prior local stage work to the part, and the result is a knockout performance that suggests Wilson’s capacity for empathy in his character writing could rival Shakespeare. Citizen isn’t always central throughout the expansive play, which ran well over three hours on opening night—but in Davis’s hands, we understand him as its prime mover.
He also embodies the philosophy Aunt Ester remains alive to impart. “People say it’s all too much to carry,” she tells him during their long-awaited confessional at the end of the first act. “I picked it up and walked with it.”
Aunt Ester won’t live forever, though, and it falls to the citizens of the world to pick up what she carried for centuries and move forward. In this shining jewel of a production, they don’t just walk—they dance.
What, When, Where
Gem of the Ocean. By August Wilson, James Ijames directed. Arden Theatre Company. Through March 31, 2019, at the F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is an ADA-accessible venue. For specific questions about accessibility, call the box office or email [email protected].
The Arden will present a performance of Gem of the Ocean with audio description and captioning on Friday, March 15, 2019 at 8pm.