BETHESDA – From its opening scene to its dramatic and mystical ending, August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” now playing at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, will keep audiences engaged with its themes of trauma, healing and community, particularly relevant today.
Set in 1904 Pittsburgh, “Gem of the Ocean,” is the first play chronologically in Wilson’s ten –play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” that charts the African American experience through the 20th century. It tells the story of former slaves and their descendants coming to terms with the harsh realities of freedom 40 years after emancipation, finding that while slavery had ended, more insidious systems of oppression would arise.
Like the remaining plays, “Gem of the Ocean” has a reoccurring overall theme: it is almost impossible for poor African Americans to lead ethical lives in a society unwilling to grant them equal opportunities. Underlying are issues related to honor, duty, betrayal, human dignity, and a responsibility for one another.
Superbly directed by Timothy Douglas, the play features seven arresting characters, with the main character being Aunt Ester, a 285 year-old wise woman and mystic, who holds the memories and spirits of the ancestors. She is a bridge between those ancestors who died in the Middle Passage and a 1904 world where the newly freed are so disenfranchised that freedom seems to be just a word. Her house at 1839 Wylie Avenue is a house of sanctuary for those in need of healing, restoration, transformation and inner peace can be had through a ritual called ‘soul washing.’
As Aunt Ester, actress Stephanie Berry is supremely dignified in the role, bringing a sense of profound compassion and wisdom to the character. When Citizen Barlow (played by a stellar Justin Weaks) shows up frantic and demanding to seek her help for something awful that resulted from his actions, she is as tender as a mother hen, offering him food and a place to rest his head.
He divulges to her that his soul needs to be washed because he stood by quietly while an innocent man drowned. Rather than face prosecution for a theft that Barlow himself committed at the local mill after not being paid, Aunt Ester offers to take him on a mystical journey to the City of Bones. It is a city formed from the white bones of slaves that perished in the Middle Passage, a trip that Aunt Ester took herself as a slave, surviving the horrendous ocean crossing, only to be sold as a child for $600.
As Aunt Ester readies Citizen for the redemptive ritual, others who revolve around her world include: Black Mary (Stori Ayers), her housekeeper; Caesar (Kenyatta Rogers), the local constable and Black Mary’s brother; Eli (Jefferson A. Russell) who lives with Aunt Ester and serves as her gatekeeper; and Solly Two Kings (Alfred Wilson), a former slave who escaped to Canada but returned to Canada at his own peril to help slaves escape via the Underground Railroad along with Eli.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Selig (Michael Glenn), a traveling salesman who drops by frequently to sell his wares and who becomes a friend. With the exception of Selig and Caesar, all seek solace at 1839 Wylie Avenue because of the injustices they have endured. We will learn later that event the villainous Caesar has had his share of injustice meted out and has hardened his heart to those around him.
In “Gem,” Wilson’s trademark lyricism and insightful treatment of social issues come into full play as the African American characters deal with cruelty and racism, in many forms, including economic discrimination by those who see people of color as less than human.
While Aunt Ester’s home is a peaceful place and a sanctuary from this cruel outside world, even her home becomes menaced by a force that may destroy it, alluding to recent attacks on safe places in today’s world, including churches and synagogues.
Almost every character has undergone some kind of trauma, but how they address it, heal and interact with community afterwards is immensely powerful. Citizen, formerly of Alabama, headed North to escape the racial violence of the turn of the century South. Black Mary, born free in the North, has come to Aunt Ester’s house in response to the injustices she’s witnessed in her own community, including with her own blood, Caesar killed a young man for stealing a loaf of bread and coldly evicts his boarders if they get one week behind in their pay at a boarding house he owns, only to arrest them immediately for vagrancy.
Each actor brings a passionate depth to their role, with Weaks’ plaintive cries for help because of Citizen’s guilt heart-tugging and believable. Wilson’s Solly is a force of nature who is so wearied of the oppression that he witnesses that he is willing to pay any cost. Rogers is superb as the heartless constable who prides himself on carrying out the law, regardless of the consequences.
In today’s world, Wilson’s themes of healing and community are timely and spot on. The play runs through December 30th.