Of all the dramas in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle, “Gem of the Ocean” is arguably the most surreal, magical and dynamic in its prophetic prowess. After beholding the visual majesty of the play, you know there is no truth but this one: August Wilson delivers. Simply. Profoundly. Uncompromisingly. Flawlessly.
|THE CAST—From left: Linda Kennedy, Deidra Starnes (Black Mary), J. Samuel Davis (Citizen Barlow), A.C. Smith (Eli), Ron Himes (Caesar Wilks) and Erik Kirkpatrick (Solly Two Kings).
Once and again, Wilson’s artistic genius and ability to craft the history of the African-American socio-cultural experience into characters who express who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going, manifests not only as a story, but also, as a miracle. The play was produced by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture as part of “The Aunt Ester Cycle,” and performed by the St. Louis Black Rep. The center will also feature performances of “Two Trains Running,” “Radio Golf,” and “Women of the Hill.”
At the center of “Gem of the Ocean” is the prophet-seer woman, Aunt Ester (Linda Kennedy), who guides the community with a loving finger, a soft word, or the steel tongue of rebuke, depending on what is most needed to bring about their deliverance from the evil chasing them, or the grief that lies within. With the wisdom of a grandmother who loves hard and the stoicism of a former slave who has lived through unbearable pain, Aunt Ester assumes the burdens of the African-American community upon her petite shoulders, before delivering them, like love in a basket, to the feet of her God. While she is estimated to be over 200 years old—which adds to the tone of mysticism in the play—Aunt Ester possesses a flirty charm that makes her sensual, intriguing and desirable. This is no short feat. For who but Wilson could pen a character so devoid of categorization, and so full of literary and dramatic appeal? Kennedy’s performance is not only inspiring, but so profound that she appears to be Wilson’s vision of Aunt Ester come-to-life.
Aunt Ester’s latest assignment comes in the character Citizen Barlow (J. Samuel Davis), desperate to have Aunt Ester “wash his soul” from a deed that grips him with shame and inferiority. Citizen’s pains follow him from the racial violence of Alabama to a two-week journey to Pittsburgh, where he is hated not by White people this time, but by Caesar Wilks (Ron Himes), a deputy sheriff who has traded compassion for his people to an unrelenting pursuit of justice in the name of the law. While Caesar has clearly sold his soul, Citizen is looking to be born again. In an unforgettable journey from one world to the next, Aunt Ester and friends take Citizen to a heavenly place, where bones lay, and where he, ultimately, finds his destiny.
The play masterfully incorporates the notion of “sankofa,” that we must know where we have been to know where we are going. It seems that all of Wilson’s plays carry that message, and as citizens of the world—and most particularly, Pittsburgh, his birthplace—we are all the better for it.
(For more information on “The Aunt Ester Cycle,” call AWCAAC at 412-258-2700, or visit AugustWilsonCenter.org.)