In the Beginning
When critics review the work of August Wilson, the same words tend to recur. Rich. Musical. Textured. Multi-layered. And here are a few phrases that apply both to his entire output and specifically to Gem of the Ocean, now playing at the Denver Center: a titanic work; a grand vision, both human and humane; a tapestry woven of humor and pain. And yes, rich, rich, rich.
No, I wasn't riveted by every moment of Gem of the Ocean. Wilson is known for the long speeches -- arias, jazz riffs, call them what you will -- that he gives his characters, and sometimes I lost the words, or there seemed to be too many, or a phrase felt overblown. There's a kind of discursive quality to Wilson's plays, a willed raggedness. And you have to buy into his heightened sensibility and use of symbolism. In a central scene, Aunt Ester, who's 287 years old and represents the spirit of black people in America, leads a young man back through the suffering of his ancestors who crossed the ocean in slave ships, then on through his own death and into grace. The whole journey takes place in Aunt Ester's living room -- and what you're seeing is an actor holding a paper boat with a group of people talking and chanting around him. At first I found myself feeling alienated; I had trouble suspending disbelief. But then the lights above the stage started to sway, the young man staggered, and the fierce ritual exerted its power over me.
Wilson set out to write the history of black Americans in the twentieth century in ten plays, all but one of them set in Pittsburgh's Hill District; he managed to complete the cycle before dying last fall at the age of sixty. Gem is the ninth of these plays, but it's the first chronologically, set in 1904. It's also the only play in which we see the mythical Aunt Ester -- whose name is frequently invoked in Wilson's work -- in the flesh. Her home serves as a sanctuary during the troubled period following slavery; on the premises live Black Mary -- a young woman who spends her time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and serving the others, and who is treated by Aunt Ester with uncharacteristic harshness -- and the wise and phlegmatic Eli. There are periodic visits from Rutherford Selig, an itinerant tinker, and Solly Two Kings, played by the peerless Charles Weldon. Two Kings is an unlikely hero, though a powerful one. He's a man who scrounges for dog shit -- which he calls "pure" -- that he packages neatly for sale. A veteran of the underground railroad, Two Kings carries a biblical-looking staff to protect himself (not a knife, he explains, because a knife is intended for killing). He's dignified and humorous, compassionate and eccentric -- an entirely original figure.
Through the chat of these characters we learn that a man accused of stealing a bucket of nails jumped into the river to elude the sheriff, stayed in the water and drowned. Another young man has been haunting the place, begging to see Aunt Ester because, he says, he needs his soul washed. This is Citizen Barlow -- and it was Barlow who stole the nails. We also learn a lot about the tenor of the times. A letter from Two Kings' sister describes the terror encountered by black people attempting to leave Alabama -- the blocked roads, beatings and killings. In Pittsburgh, freed slaves can find work at the mill, but this work simply offers slow rather than quick starvation.
The villain of the piece is the aptly named Caesar, Black Mary's brother, who, as sheriff, has taken on the white man's role of defending the law by brutalizing the desperate people who break it. But Wilson allows even Caesar a passionate speech in his own defense.
Wilson takes ideas and images from myth, folk tales and the Bible, shifting them slightly, adding his own weight and shading. The two pennies that Aunt Ester instructs Barlow to find seem trivial at first, but they accrete significance as the action progresses. So many of the objects in the play vibrate with meaning: Two Kings' staff, a loaf of bread, the bowl of water that Black Mary brings to Aunt Ester. The concept of slavery is sounded in several keys, from Black Mary's reclamation of herself to the reminder that Solly Two Kings' work on the underground railroad is not finished.
Director Israel Hicks has assembled a superb cast. Weldon is a wise, deep and seductive Two Kings; Harvy Blanks's strong, solid performance as Eli supplies the play's bass notes. With his deep voice, and projecting a constant sense of suppressed rage, Terrence Riggins is a frightening and riveting Caesar. It must be hard to play a mythic figure, but Marlene Warfield makes Aunt Ester real in all her manifestations, from her profound compassion to her spurts of irritability. Kim Staunton shows us the great strength beneath Black Mary's silence and deference. Jamie Horton's Rutherford Selig is precisely etched, comic, thoughtful and self-effacing. Playing Citizen Barlow, Michael Eaddy transitions from goofy bewilderment to dignity. It's not just that these actors are terrific. Almost all of them have inhabited Wilson's world before; they have the music of his language in their bones. And they've worked together many times, too. You can feel the currents moving between them on the stage.
This is an evangelical play in the best sense of the word -- transformative, a call to action, a paean of praise to freedom. Not the ersatz freedom of political speeches, but the limitless, wild thing itself. It's clear these actors are grieving Wilson's death, and this performance is an act of tribute and of love.
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