To a large but under-appreciated degree, August Wilson’s decade-driven series of dramas has been a study in the variance of theatrical form as much as the changes in the American black experience in the 20th century. And if “King Hedley II” was informed by Greek tragedy, then Wilson’s latest, “Gem of the Ocean,” intentionally is beholden to the tropes of turn-of-the-century American melodrama. But while his styles may change, Wilson’s main life lessons remain as consistent as the beauty of his language: Moral rectitude sometimes means defying an unjust law, and salvation flows only to those who pay homage to the pain and sacrifices of their ancestors.
Those themes appear in the two main plot strands of his latest work — which, at three powerful hours, is closer to finished than were many of his other plays at this Goodman Theater stage in their development. With events set in the “sanctuary” home of Aunt Ester, spiritual parent of the Pittsburgh Hill district in particular and Wilson’s landscape in general, the play revolves around two main characters who arrive on the doorstep of Aunt Ester and her protectors, Eli (Paul Butler) and Black Mary (Yvette Ganier).
Citizen (played in lively, youthful form by Kenny Leon, former artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theater) is a sinner and a new arrival from Alabama. Tormented by a past error of judgment, he must be taught by Aunt Ester to visit the City of Bones on a spiritual journey to find redemption. Caesar (Peter Jay Fernandez, who works in broad strokes) is a black cop charged with carrying out white laws. He does so with relish and a sense of moral righteousness, causing havoc in the black community by putting the rule of an oppressive law above family, compassion and truth.
The context may be wildly removed, but Caesar reads explicitly to me like Wilson is going after Clarence Thomas (along, perhaps, with other African-American intellectuals and politicians who no longer see the need for affirmative action). The fictional lawmaker has one monologue of justification (in which he suggests he had no other choice but to work with the Man, given the hand he was dealt), but the playwright’s heart is not in those lines.
Caesar has screwed up in Wilson’s universe because he has forgotten his roots and his obligations to those who went before him. He may be dealing with fires in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, but it feels like this character’s genesis owes a lot to the current activities at the Supreme Court of the United States.
Set in 1904, “Gem of the Ocean” will become the first in Wilson’s 10-part cycle (only the latest part of which, the 1990s play, still has to be written). As one watches it, therefore, one cannot help but think about how it will change the context of the works that followed. Most notably, this play finally introduces us to Aunt Ester — an unseen presence in several of the other works whose reported death forms the climax of “Hedley.” As played by Greta Oglesby, with a deft blend of spiritual weight and realistic humor, she’s clearly intended to be the conscience of this play cycle — even though she has no role in “Fences” or “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the two best-known works in the series.
It may be that “Gem” will never carry the commercial or popular freight of those two works — Wilson now is less interested than ever in one-off Broadway successes and more concentrated on mapping out his broad theatrical canvas on his own terms. (As he should be.)
“Gem” still needs some work — most notably in the long second-act seance scene (wherein Citizen visits the City of Bones), which simply does not work on any level in Marian McClinton’s otherwise superbly acted and deftly staged production. That half-hour or so needs a serious rethinking.
There’s rich character work from Butler and, especially, the superb Anthony Chisholm as Solly Two Kings, a former Underground Railroad conductor who becomes Caesar’s latest victim.
There are no dangling monologues here or other serious problems. It’s a powerful beginning to a singular series of works. And it will be interesting to see who shows up when it moves to Washington.