Stage Door Review

Gem of the Ocean

Saturday, August 20, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by August Wilson, directed by Philip Akin

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 19-October 9, 2022

Aunt Ester to Citizen: “You think you supposed to know everything. Life is a mystery. Don’t you know life is a mystery?”

When I first saw August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean at the Court Theatre in Chicago in 2015, I couldn’t imagine how it could be bettered. Now I’ve seen the Shaw Festival production of the play and it is even better than the already note-perfect Chicago production. Much of this is due to the greater simplicity of Philip Akins’s staging. Even more is due to Akins’s ability to forge a tight, even acting ensemble who work so effortlessly together that you feel you are watching a community on stage rather than an assemblage of actors. This extraordinarily fine production is the best show by a long margin of the Shaw Festival’s summer season.

Gem of the Ocean is part of August Wilson’s magisterial “Pittsburgh Cycle”, a series of  ten plays all set in Pittsburgh, PA, one for each decade of the 20th century, in which Wilson (1945-2005) sought to present the African-American experience. Ontarians have seen some of these plays only in a piecemeal fashion. In 2003 Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre produced Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson (1987) about the 1930s. In 2016 Soulpepper produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) about the 1920s. And in 2019 the Grand Theatre London produced Fences (1985) about the 1950s.

The time period of Gem of the Ocean, the first decade of the 20th century places it chronologically at the start of the series even though it was the second last to be written. It has the key role in exploring the pernicious influence of slavery on both Black and White people even after the Civil War and after Emancipation. The question that runs through all the “Pittsburgh Cycle” is “Black people have been “emancipated” but “emancipated” to what?” Freedom, especially in Gem of the Ocean seems to be nothing but freedom to be exploited, disenfranchised and discriminated against. The related question is “What, for a people transported unwillingly to another continent is theirs or can provide a sense of belonging?”

The continuity of past with the present of the play is embodied in the person of Aunt Ester renowned as a “cleanser of souls” and a living repository of history who claims to be 285 years old. The time of the action is 1904 which means that she would have been born in 1620. That is the year that slavery in the British colonies in the future United States began when a Dutch ship first sold African slaves to colonists at Jamestown. The address of Aunt Ester’s house, known as a sanctuary for Black people in trouble, is 1839 Wylie Street in Pittsburgh. 1839 is the year of the Amistad Rebellion, when inhabitants of a Cuban slave ship rose up against their keepers.  The United States captured the ship and the US Supreme Court, in a ruling that gave strength to the abolitionist movement, ruled that the slaves on the ship should be considered free men.

“Wylie” could very refer to the abolitionist Rev. Samuel B. Wylie (1773-1852) who wrote in 1803 that slave-holding was repugnant to God and against the Bible’s explicit commands and criticized the United States government for enabling immorality by its acceptance of slavery.

As I wrote in my review of the Court Theatre production, “The Amistad Rebellion has echoes in Gem of the Ocean. A black man is accused of stealing a bucket of nails but maintains that he did not do it to the point of drowning rather than give a false confession. This leads the black mill-workers to go on strike.  Caesar Wilkes (David Alan Anderson), a policeman ...  makes himself a hated figure by ruthlessly enforcing the law against his fellow African-Americans, whom he has already cheated in other ways”. Caesar’s past actions have alienated his own sister Black Mary, whom Aunt Ester has taken under her wing and hopes will carry on her work.

As I noted in 2015, “Against this turbulent background, Solly Two Kings, an old friend of Ester and of Ester’s caregiver Eli, learns that the state of Alabama refuses to let its free black residents escape for the North and so resolves to rescue his sister trapped there. Meanwhile, Citizen Barlow, a young man who has managed to escape from Alabama, desperately seeks Ester’s help in cleansing his soul for some mysterious misdeed.

“With its use of symbolic numbers and names, the play is poised halfway between realism and allegory. The highpoint of the play is Ester’s ritual to cleanse Citizen’s soul in which Eli, Solly and Black Mary participate. The ritual involves transporting Citizen mentally and spiritually to the City of Bones, a city built entirely of the bones of those Africans in slave-traders’ boats who did not survive the voyage from Africa to the New World. Citizen must enter this city but a guard watches each of the [twelve] gates. To gain entrance, Citizen must confess the sin he is guilty of. Once he awakes from the altered state of mind that Aunt Ester induces, Citizen’s soul is cleansed of that sin and he can move forward with his life”.

It is hard to imagine a 21st-century play of such scope that looks so closely into the interrelationship of history and psychology. “Gem of the Ocean” may be the name of a particular ship in the play, but it is also a metaphor for “Columbia” (as in the famous anthem and in the C of DC), a poetic name for the United States. Wilson’s play is thus no less than an interrogation into the nature of the United States. To carry off such a play requires a director of deep insight, which it certainly has in Philip Akin, director of last year’s best play at the Shaw, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, and other “best of the Shaws” like “Master Harold” …and the Boys in 2016 and Topdog/Underdog in 2011.

Akin has directed a cast that provides the audience with ensemble acting equal to the very best ever seen at the Shaw. Leading the cast as Aunt Ester is American actor Monica Parks, who gives a performance of a quiet majesty beyond anything I have seen in years. Parks provides a masterclass in how to dominate a stage not through action but by concentrating the grandeur of her character in the simplest movement and the slightest inflection of voice.

Parks’s keen eye surveys the world around her so piercingly that one can easily believe Ester is looking at it from the perspective of 285 years of experience. Parks wonderfully conveys the mingling of humour and compassion Ester feels for human beings who so foolishly continue to make the same mistakes. It is this mingling of humour and compassion that makes her see Citizen Barlow in a way no one else does. She knows his fear and she knows how to cure it with a ridiculous errand. Wilson’s Aunt Ester is an unfathomably rich character and it is thrilling so see Parks inhabit her so completely.

Two other characters in the play lived through slavery into the present. One is Eli, Aunt Ester’s caregiver. The other is Solly Two Kings (who, after escaping slavery, named himself after two kings in the Bible, Solomon and David, symbolic of wisdom and strength). Both worked to free slaves on the Underground Railroad and Solly carries a staff with a notch for every person he rescued. David Alan Anderson as Solly and Jeremiah Sparks as Eli have a wonderful rapport on stage and somehow convey a long friendship better than I’ve ever seen done on stage.

Solly is given to humour and is the one character who could be said to be comic, while Eli is more earnest. Nevertheless, Solly’s humour covers a gnawing pain when he learns that his sister will not be allowed to leave Louisiana because of one of legislative tricks Southern White lawmakers used to keep their cheap workforce from migrating to the North. Both Anderson and Sparks – one with swagger, one with modesty – portray ordinary men compelled to heroic actions.

In contrast to the selflessness embodied by Aunt Ester, Eli and Solly, is Caesar Wilks. Given the prevalence of Biblical parallels in the text, it’s impossible not to think of Matthew 22:21 in connection with him: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Caesar is the only one of the characters obsessed with money and possessions and it is no accident he is the only black character absent at the ceremony of the “washing of souls”.

Allan Louis gives a great performance as Caesar. Caesar is the closest the play has to a villain, but Louis avoids the temptation to paint him as one. Wilson, well known as a writer of monologues, gives Caesar an extended monologue in which he tells his life story and how he came to value the power of money and the law. Louis gives a magnificent account of the monologue showing that Caesar thinks it portrays his rise from rags to riches but unaware that his pursuit of money and power has turned him against his own people. One of these people is his own sister Black Mary, and Louis clearly shows that the bravado Louis gives Caesar is severely punctured by her rejection of him.

Sophia Walker makes Black Mary into much more of a complex figure than did her counterpart in the Court Theatre production. Walker shows how respect and resentment are in constant conflict with regard to Aunt Ester. Mary knows that Ester is a great person but wonders why such a person should occupy herself with so many trivial details about Mary’s everyday work. Walker also nicely portrays Mary’s internal conflict with regard to Citizen – disdaining him but also finding herself attracted to him.

As Citizen, Nathan Judah gives a fine portrait of a naive man filled with fear. It is a balm to Citizen as well as to us that Aunt Ester does not spurn him. She sees more clearly what troubles Citizen than he can see himself. The action of the play comprises Citizen’s journey from helplessness to nobility and Judah convincingly takes us step by step along with him as his character undergoes this transformation.

Rutherford Selig (whose last name means “blessed” in German) is the only White man in the play. He is there primarily as a contrast to Caesar Wilks – Caesar a Black man who leaves his own behind to rise, Selig a White man not interested in power but in helping people in need. Jason Cadieux lends Selig a kind, easygoing nature, quite unlike Caesar’s high-strung personality. Selig and Black Mary’s friendly, playful interaction at the start of the action represents an ideal of Black-White relations in a world where they are otherwise so fraught.

The Court Theatre where I first saw Gem of the Ocean is small theatre with a proscenium stage. Jack Magaw cleverly designed a realistic set that looked as if it were on the verge of turning into a ship. The Shaw’s Studio Theatre stages plays in the round and for Gem of the Ocean and this is an enormous advantage. Camellia Koo’s brilliantly conceived set consists solely of a long wooden table and ten chairs. The second storey of Aunt Ester’s house is reached simply by actors climbing up the northwestern aisle through the audience. The table has hidden openings in the top that can transform part of it into the stove where Black Mary spends much of her time. Sitting elsewhere and opening a drawer Mary instantly turns the table into a desk. The table undergoes a major transformation for the ceremony of Citizen’s voyage to the City of Bones, but it is so spectacular I won’t reveal it. Simply said, Citizen’s transformation is marked by a transformation in the table that has summed up every aspect of Aunt Ester’s household.

Citizen’s journey is absolutely magical whether we regard it as supernatural or psychological. Philip Akin and his incomparable cast have made our journey through the play equally magical. We emerge felling that we have experienced a great metamorphosis take place, that all the fear and negativity that seemed to dominate the world at the beginning of the action has been swept away and replaced with a new mode of thinking and behaving. Gem of the Ocean is so powerful and moving a play, I can only hope that the Festival considers staging the remaining plays of Wilson’s cycle. That would make the Festival the first theatre in Canada to accomplish that feat. That would also take audiences at the Shaw on one of the greatest theatrical journeys in American drama.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Nathan Judah as Citizen Barlow, David Alan Anderson as Solly and Monica Parks as Aunt Ester; Nathan Judah as Citizen Barlow (seated), David Alan Anderson as Solly, Jeremiah Sparks as Eli, Sophia Walker as Black Mary and Monica Parks as Aunt Ester; Monica Parks as Aunt Ester; Allan Louis as Caesar Wilks, Sophia Walker as Black Mary, Nathan Judah as Citizen Barlow, Jeremiah Sparks as Eli and David Alan Anderson as Solly (seated foreground); Nathan Judah as Citizen Barlow and Monica Parks as Aunt Ester. © 2022 Emily Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.