Set in 1904, August Wilson’s slow-burning, powerfully spiritual drama “Gem of the Ocean” — the ninth to appear but the first chronologically in his decade-by-decade epic cycle of 10 plays chronicling African-American 20th-century experience — deals with the legacy of slavery and the disenfranchisement of blacks freed by the Emancipation Proclamation but not by the era’s cultural, political and social restraints. Like the play’s key characters, whose suffering has fortified them with wisdom and determination, this production appears to have gained in strength and stature on its troubled path to Broadway.
Like most of Wilson’s plays, “Gem” has been evolving in various productions before reaching New York, premiering in April 2003 at Chi’s Goodman Theater before an acclaimed Los Angeles run that summer.
Difficulties arose, however, during the play’s pre-Broadway Boston engagement this fall: Original director Marion McClinton was hospitalized and forced to withdraw, replaced by Kenny Leon, who helmed last season’s hit “A Raisin in the Sun” revival; Delroy Lindo dropped out due to creative differences, shifting Anthony Chisholm from a supporting role back into the part he originated, Solly Two Kings; and a major investor pulled out, creating a $2 million budget shortfall that delayed its Gotham opening until Carole Shorenstein Hayes stepped in. During that process, the role of Wilson’s longtime Broadway producer Benjamin Mordecai was marginalized.
Those travails left little reason to hope “Gem” would reverse Wilson’s recent Broadway fortunes. His last play, “King Hedley II,” and the 2003 revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” were tepidly received, closing after short runs.
But this new work arrives with much to admire, shorn of a full half-hour since its preem, its structural flaws veiled by the compassion, humor, lyrical majesty and vivid characters that make the playwright such a distinctive voice. And the sterling cast sure doesn’t hurt.
While it’s not at the level of Wilson’s best writing, like “Fences” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Gem” is a more seamless blend of realism and mysticism than some of his recent work. The first act meanders too unhurriedly through scene-setting and character establishment, but the enthralling second-act fireworks are bracingly operatic and moving.
Central figure is Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), a 287-year-old woman with the healing power to cleanse troubled souls. Mentioned previously by Wilson in “Two Trains Running” and “Hedley,” Ester was born in the year that slave ships first brought Africans to America. She functions as a potent symbol for the playwright’s use of history to reinforce and define cultural identity.
Into her house, a sanctuary in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, comes Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks), badly shaken after a crime he committed has been pinned on another man, who drowned himself rather than face false conviction. In a harrowingly beautiful scene of rich theatricality, Ester leads Citizen to redemption by transporting him spiritually across the Atlantic Ocean to the fantastical gated City of Bones, made of the skeletons of slaves who died during the passage from Africa.
Assisting Aunt Ester in this journey are her devoted friend Eli (Eugene Lee); housekeeper Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton); and Solly, who escaped from slavery to Canada but returned to join the Underground Railroad. The 62 notches on his walking stick represent the 62 slaves he carried to freedom.
Backdrop to the action is unrest among the exploited black mill workers. This culminates in a fire started by Solly, who, with Citizen, is relentlessly pursued by local constable Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). Black Mary’s brother Caesar has claimed his citizenship as a free man regardless of the cost to those around him.
The mechanics of the play could be smoother, at times bearing awkward traces of extensive cutting and reshaping. One scene in which Caesar recaps his personal history to Black Mary — who’s surely not unfamiliar with his past — seems uncharacteristically unresourceful as backgrounding. But Wilson’s writing is galvanized by a vigorous embrace of life and death, grief and struggle and, as always, by a fine ear for flavorful vernacular.
Wholly inhabiting Aunt Ester, Rashad goes from the quiet fortitude of her Tony-winning turn as Lena Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” to a blazing perf here, making the feisty sage a mythic figure and a profoundly human, self-possessed woman.
Chisholm’s raspy-voiced Solly is an indomitable spirit, his wily, good humor undiminished despite the pain and indignities he’s suffered, which are those of an entire people.
Hamilton summons fiery pluckiness, especially when she finally barks back at Ester’s imperious commands; Santiago-Hudson describes a hardened man whose advancement has dulled his humanity; and Jelks movingly conveys Citizen’s turmoil and ultimate liberation as he struggles to forgive himself and to absorb the brutally formative experiences of his elders.
Having originated the role of Citizen in Chicago as well as directing a number of Wilson plays at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, Leon brings keen understanding and sensitivity to the material.
He is backed by impeccable craft contributions: Constanza Romero’s detailed costumes; Donald Holder’s atmospheric lighting; Kathryn Bostic’s melancholy slide-guitar blues; and David Gallo’s spacious set, the parlor of Aunt Ester’s house daubed in the mottled blue-green of the ocean.
These elements are brought together to thrilling effect with Dan Moses Schreier’s haunting sound design in the play’s central set piece, a dynamically staged spiritual voyage that provides a soaring crescendo.