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Gem of the Ocean

Set in 1904 Pittsburgh, the ninth addition to August Wilson's cycle of dramas dealing with black American struggles in the 20th century exposes slavery in all its toxic forms -- slavery on a government-condoned basis, slavery in a supposedly free environment, and emotional slavery that ties people to crippling, self-defeating ideas. Acted with driving conviction by a commendable cast, Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" is both fanciful and brutally real, sustaining a delicate balance between socially relevant speeches and piercing personal dilemmas.

Set in 1904 Pittsburgh, the ninth addition to August Wilson’s cycle of dramas dealing with black American struggles in the 20th century exposes slavery in all its toxic forms — slavery on a government-condoned basis, slavery in a supposedly free environment, and emotional slavery that ties people to crippling, self-defeating ideas. Acted with driving conviction by a commendable cast, Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” is both fanciful and brutally real, sustaining a delicate balance between socially relevant speeches and piercing personal dilemmas.

Director Marion McClinton heaves us into the action instantly when a desperate young drifter, Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks) breaks into the home of spiritual healer Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), seeking help in coping with a past sin. The compassionate Ester accepts him, but friends and members of her household — cynical Solly (Anthony Chisholm), strong-minded housekeeper Black Mary (Yvette Ganier) and dignified Eli (Al White) — view the stranger suspiciously.

“Gem’s” antagonist is lawmaker Caesar (Peter James Francis), Black Mary’s brother, a ruthless Javert who fanatically upholds law no matter who it destroys. The story unfolds in parallel plots. Caesar tries to nail Solly and Citizen for suspected crimes, and Aunt Ester orchestrates a seance that will deliver Citizen to the City of Bones, an unmarked graveyard in the ocean (also an important element of Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”) where slaves were tortured. Through interaction with former victims, Ester gives Citizen the chance to face his sins and find redemption.

McClinton’s staging of this seance is mesmerizing, exploding with Dan Moses Schreier’s cacaphonous claps of thunder, the creaking of an unstable ship, teeming rain and the lashing of whips. Donald Holder’s lighting accents the writhing Citizen as he struggles with a chain around his neck, and embellishes the claustrophobic terror with light patterns on the floor seeping through portions of the boat. When Citizen survives the ordeal and faces the city with a radiant, shining face, the impact is exhilarating.

The role of Aunt Ester is a monumental challenge for any actress, and Rashad captures all the complexities in a soaringly spiritual portrayal. Ganier has a bruised, suffering beauty that turns Mary into a genuinely appealing heroine, and her steely strength, in a confrontation with Ester, is one of the production’s most electrifying moments.

Chisholm provides a long, gravel-voiced howl of pain against enslavement and the hopelessness of gaining true freedom, but he shapes the part with an extraordinary lightness of touch that serves only to deepen the agony beneath. Jelks superbly embodies damaged youth struggling to triumph over guilt and poverty.

A few imperfections are evident. As self-contained Eli, Al White is convincing, but his role seems passive and underwritten, furnishing few clues to the soul of the character. Caesar is a carefully drawn enemy, and Wilson gives him an intense monologue that clearly delineates the motivations behind his callousness. His power is diluted by intervals, however, when he remains offstage while characters talk excessively about his evil. Climax could also be tightened to sharpen the pain of the final tragedy.

But these quibbles pale when experiencing the gut-level glory of Wilson’s language, listening to Solly’s cry, “There ain’t nothin’ worse than slavery … I was there,” or watching former slave Aunt Ester holding up a document that declares her a piece of property worth only $607.

Gem of the Ocean

Mark Taper Forum; 760 seats; $45 top

  • Production: A Center Theater Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County presentation of the world premiere of a play in two acts by August Wilson. Directed by Marion McClinton.
  • Crew: Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Constanza Romero; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music, Kathryn Bostic; production stage manager, Narda Alcorn. Opened and reviewed July 30, 2003; closes Sept. 7. Running time: 3 HOURS
  • Cast: Solly Two Kings - Anthony Chisholm Black Mary - Evette Ganier Caesar - Peter Fancis James Citizen Barlow - John Earl Jelks Aunt Ester - Phylicia Rashad Rutherford Selig - Raynor Scheine Eli - Al White