Most of us have no reference point for life in Pittsburgh for Blacks during the previous turn of the century beyond a decided lack of technology. In 1904 slavery, though abolished some 40 years prior, was not a distant memory but a constant reminder thanks to the hold of Jim Crow and Reconstruction on relatives still trapped in the south. Still, the promise of a new century and Northern possibilities for a better life brought many a person to Pittsburgh to give it a go. Such was the case for one Citizen Barlow, led to 1839 Wylie Avenue to have his soul washed of a sin that resulted in the death of an innocent man.
This is the backdrop for “Gem of the Ocean,” although the next to the last installment of August Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle, is the chronological ground upon which the rest of the century is built. The Wylie Avenue address is the home of Aunt Ester Tyler, the Hill District’s wise and fiery matriarch (herself a former slave) but not quite the destination Barlow had in mind when he began his quest for salvation. Although a place of sanctuary, 1839 Wylie marked the end of one path, a fork in the road and the start of greater adventure.
A co-production with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, “Gem” was originally slated for the 486-seat AWC, however this production is better served in the more intimate confines of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s third floor space across the street at 937 Liberty Avenue. The drama unfolds in front of and alongside of the audience, adding to the immediacy of the story. Attention to detail can be noted in Mark Southers’ set design, including a hand-pump faucet of a sink and an early model ceramic stove fueled by wood. Fortunately with August Wilson’s words there was not need for scenery chewing.
Chrystal Bates’ portrayal of the nearly-three century-old Aunt Ester was nothing short of mesmerizing, holding the audience spellbound with a voice and cadence that captured the wisdom of eternity. Kevin Brown (Bates’ fellow AWC Theatre Ensemble member) and Kim El are two of Ester’s boarders, Eli and Black Mary, who help—along with Solly Two Kings (Alan Bomar) Jones—guide the troubled Barlow (Jonathan Berry) to the mythical City of Bones for his deliverance.
Supporting performances from Wali Jamal as Caesar Wilkes (Black Mary’s estranged brother and the colored constable) and David Crawford as Selig provide grounded contrast to a crucible point. Selig represents the good that balances the racist behavior of his White brethren while Wilkes is the arrogant embodiment of newly minted gatekeeper.
All of this is the canvas used to blaze the trail of a collective memory that is the Middle Passage with Aunt Ester serving as the spiritual Harriett Tubman leading Citizen Barlow to freedom. The sensory textures of this ethereal trail is delivered through the creaking sound of the slave ship Gem of the Ocean battered by the stormy seas of lightning and thunder amid wails, moans and screams of human cargo shipped to an unknown, foreign land (kudos to sound designer Mark Whitehead & lighting designer Stevie Agnew).
A complex tale of so many layers can only be successfully told through compelling performances drawn out by decisive directing and a talented cast. It doesn’t hurt that three of the cast (Berry, Brown and Jones) and director Mark Clayton Southers recently completed a run of “Gem” two months ago for the Human Race Theatre Co. in Dayton, Ohio; this production bears the juicy fruit of the previous run.