By Amanda VanNostrand.
It has been said that August Wilson is the most prominent African American playwright of the 20th century. With shows expressing the spirit and essence of the African American community as well as the oppression that is so heavily placed upon it, audiences inevitably leave having been entertained and educated in the reality that has been played out in history and through to today. In addition to his well-known plays, August Wilson wrote a 10-play series called The American Century Cycle, encompassing 100 years of African American history, taken decade by decade from the 1900s through the 1990s. Part of the beauty of Gem of the Ocean, Arden Theatre’s current show, is that it is the first of this 10-show cycle and will be followed by another ‘gem’ of Wilson’s, How I Learned What I Learned. Gem of the Ocean certainly does not fall short of the high expectations of Wilson’s shows and will impress any and all viewers. It will be playing on the F. Otto Haas Stage between now and March 31st.
Gem of the Ocean takes place in Pittsburgh, 1904. Upon walking into the theater, viewers are met with a living room that seems to be floating on a ship. On the outskirts of the ship (The Gem of the Ocean, a legendary slave ship), are solemn heads coming out of water, bringing an eerie, bitter tone to the setting. The scenic (and lighting) designer is Thom Weaver, and his work is sure to stick with you both through the show and after it ends.
Gem of the Ocean is the story of a household: Aunt Ester Tyler, a former slave and head of the family; Black Mary, the housekeeper and friend and confidante of Aunt Ester’s; and Eli, the caretaker to Aunt Ester. The opening of the show presents some additions to the family: Citizen Barlow, a man fleeing the injustices of the south who is looking to have his soul cleansed by Aunt Ester; and Solly Two Kings, the seller of pots and pans, and a great admirer of the family on Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh. It is clear that all who dwell within the home for tea and lunch are fond of one another, making up a unique family. Caesar, Black Mary’s brother and law enforcement agent, visits at one point and makes it clear, especially to Citizen, that he will go to any means to uphold the law. As the show goes on, it is apparent that the past does not detach from the present, and though slavery is not legal, the fair treatment of black women and men has not begun to occur as of yet. Through injustices and hefty conversation, the issues that come up are striking, and as slavery is connected to the times of 1904, it is incredible how the times of 1904 are connected to today. The show becomes mystical at times while remaining too real for anyone’s liking.
The cast of Gem of the Ocean are all beyond amazing. As they portray people who have been masterfully characterized, this show is stunning. Aunt Ester Tyler is the queen of Gem of the Ocean and Zuhairah is phenomenal as she plays this part. From beginning to end, Zuhairah commands respect from the audience and the fellow characters of the show. In the emotional conclusion, tears are visible in her eyes and the vast intensity and significance of this story to her is evident. It is a privilege to witness the work of her beautiful soul. Danielle Leneé plays the part of Black Mary and when she delivers her speech to Citizen Barlow (Akeem Davis) the women in the audience can feel the passion emanating into them. As she speaks of the injustices she has faced by the men who have abandoned her, her emotions spill into the people surrounding the stage and truly inspire. Brian Anthony Wilson plays the part of Solly Two Kings and his abilities are impressive as well. This cast is impassioned and brings this story exactly what is required.
Gem of the Ocean is not an easy show to watch, as it is a reminder of just how much further American culture has to go before all are treated equally according to the law. Laws remain oppressive to some and advantageous to others today, and the distance in time makes this reality striking and infuriating. But, this show is beautifully done and one would be remiss to pass up the privilege of witnessing the first of Wilson’s The American’s Century Cycle series. A must-see for everyone.