ATL’s “Gem of the Ocean” is easily the best theatrical offering of the season, enriched by superlative acting and direction (despite some minor opening night flubs). It’s hard to go wrong with any work by August Wilson, the Shakespeare of our age.
Set in 1906 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, “Gem of the Ocean” is chronologically the first in Wilson’s 10-play cycle (one for each decade of the 20th century), but one of the last plays he wrote. The plot is not complex — Citizen Barlow (Carl Cofield) wants the mystical Aunt Ester (impeccably portrayed by Pat Bowie) to “cleanse his soul” for stealing a bucket of nails, which ultimately caused the death of the man wrongfully accused of the deed. The mythical resonance is so powerful that the audience is completely engaged without dwelling too heavily on plot — and this is where Wilson’s genius lies.
The heavily burdened Citizen represents everyman, mired in the material world. He moved north to earn a living in the steel mills. Landlord Caesar (Terrence Riggins) takes advantage of the workers. Citizen’s room and board are higher than his pay, which leads him to criminal activity and ultimately to Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old woman who sailed from Africa on a slave ship named Gem of the Ocean.
Hers is a house of refuge, and she’s a repository of ancient wisdom. There are obvious parallels between Aunt Ester and Erzulie Freda, the vodoun loa or spirit whose ocean of tears allows humans to pass between the material and spiritual realms. Ships are sacred to Erzulie Freda, and gems are her preferred offering. Black Mary (Tyla Abercrumbie), Aunt Ester’s high-spirited housekeeper, on the other hand, is like the fiery Erzulie Dantor, the warrior spirit and protector of women and children, with flashing eyes and a quick temper.
Wilson is extremely comfortable with his female characters, whose roles are meatier than the men’s. The interaction between Mary and Aunt Ester is both fluid and natural. Abercrumbie and Cofield sizzle in Citizen’s clumsy attempt to seduce Mary, who puts him in his place for presuming she needs him for fulfillment. Solly Two Kings (an engaging performance by Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is a former slave who makes his living selling dog feces. Clad in a wide-brimmed hat and greatcoat, Solly carries a link of his slave irons in his pocket for good luck. His walking stick evokes Papa Legba, the vodoun gatekeeper between this world and the next. Solly dreams of becoming one of the 12 gatekeepers to the City of Bones, the place where Citizen must go for his soul-cleansing.
Citizen’s breathtaking journey to the City of Bones on the Gem of the Ocean is not unlike a vodoun ritual. Aunt Ester sings and the others chant as the walls turn to water and the tortured ancestors cry out in agony. After all this sensory bombardment, Citizen’s redemption is rather anticlimactic, however. Perhaps forgiveness is not as important as being “right” with oneself and honoring the past.