At the start of August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN, only 40 years have passed since the end of slavery.
It's 1904 in Pittsburgh. More than half of the characters on stage vividly recall captivity, and they've also had time to realize that their supposed emancipation has been circumscribed by a series of political, cultural and economic realities. When it comes to freedom, former slave Solly Two Kings (Thomasi McDonald) notes, "I say I got it, but what is it? I'm still trying to find out."
In this penultimate chapter (which premiered in 2003) of Wilson's 10-play "Century Cycle," the playwright raises the stakes even further when the greatest threat that central character Citizen Barlow (Jade Arnold) faces endangers his spiritual freedom as well.
Barlow hasn't come to the house of Aunt Ester (Juanda LaJoyce Holley), a powerful matriarch and religious figure mentioned in several of Wilson's plays, to hide from the law. Instead, he's come to get his soul cleansed after causing a man's death.
That circumstance precipitates an extended, frequently pointed meditation on individual freedom and the different limits inevitably placed upon it by legal and economic systems, interpersonal responsibilities and community membership—true citizenship, in other words. Solly predicts as much when he tells Barlow, "It's hard to be a citizen. You gonna have to fight to get it. And time you get it you be surprised how heavy it is."
Significantly, the law—in the person of belligerent neighborhood enforcer Caesar Wilks (Phillip Bernard Smith)—is one of the entities that must be fought in this equation. When Wilks says that everything and everyone is "under the law," he's describing a new form of subjugation.
Director John Harris ably navigates the script, from the deceptively humble situations of the characters to the civic and spiritual heights they ultimately ascend. There's true nobility when McDonald assays Solly Two Kings' account of tasting—and forsaking—true freedom before joining the Underground Railroad. Holley is on firm footing as she conveys the uncanny religious authority of Aunt Ester, and Sherida McMullan gives Black Mary a similarly preternatural knowledge when she challenges Barlow to rethink his relationships with women.
Regional veteran John Murphy easily portrays peddler Rutherford Selig. But Gem marks the second time in recent months that Malcolm Green has been asked to play a character much older than he is on stage. Having hit many of the same notes here as he did in Bare Theatre's Let Them Be Heard, regional directors now need to explore this actor's range.
A high point of Gem is the second-act reconciliation ritual Aunt Ester conducts for Barlow. Holley gives Wilson's poetic description wings as she narrates—and Barlow lives—the plight of a ship full of slaves who did not survive the Middle Passage. The afterlife those saints inhabit—the fabled City of Bones—is the ultimate destination of Barlow's spiritual pilgrimage. That redemptive, transcendental journey is one all local theatergoers should take.
This article appeared in print with the headline "20th century rising."