Black history is continuously under attack, even during Black History Month. Some jurisdictions and politicians are busily banning books and curriculums that even mention America’s original sin of slavery. Playwright August Wilson’s body of work chronicled the history of Black lives and the impact of systemic racism in his Century Cycle, ten plays set in his hometown of Pittsburgh during each decade of the 20th century.
Gem of the Ocean was written in 2003 and set in 1904 in the working class Hill District, where 285-year-old Ester Tyler (Lisa Gaye Dixon) lives with her helper and protegee Black Mary (Sydney Charles) and Eli (A.C. Smith, reprising this role from the 2015 Court Theatre production). At Ester’s house, the trio interact with Eli’s friend and Ester’s flirt Solly Two Kings (James A. Williams), a former conductor on the Underground Railroad, aging white go-fer Rutherford Selig (Gary Houston), and troubled young everyman Citizen Barlow (Sharif Atkins).
Pittsburgh is in turmoil due to the recent theft of a bucket of nails from the town’s mill, and a resulting death during the chase. Mary’s brother Caesar (Kelvin Roston Jr.) is the power-hungry police officer who hassles everyone over that crime and more. Under Chuck Smith’s direction, Eli begins the production by cleaning his rifle, so the violence to follow is a foregone conclusion. The blue timbers of the set, designed by Linda Buchanan, are interspersed with spaces of equal size as they disappear into the rafters, also supporting the theme of tenuous, murky architecture within these lives.
Biblical references pepper the plot as well, from the Christian names, to Citizen’s quest to have his “soul washed” by Aunt Ester, to the rock wall that Eli and Citizen are building in the yard, using stones provided by Selig. Caesar’s trumpeted threats aim to tear down that protection.
Sexual tension percolates too, as Citizen macks on Mary, to which she rebuts, “you’ve got a woman in your hands. What are you going to do now?” Women and women’s work anchor this male-dominated dynamic as the females feed and heal, rend then mend, aid and abet their fellows. Ester helps Citizen navigate his redemption using a map made of a Gullah-looking quilt, all just a few decades removed from the Civil War and manumission papers.
As Civil War 2.0 heats up in the real world, Wilson’s astute dissection of the causes of personal and racial animus, delivered by this empathetic and cohesive cast, continues to cross the waters of time.
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Wilson’s Century Cycle plays, all of which have been produced at the Goodman, also include Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in 1911, written in 1984), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in 1927, written in 1982), The Piano Lesson (set in 1936, written in 1986), Seven Guitars (set in 1948, written in 1995 with a Goodman world premiere), Fences (set in 1957, written in 1983), Two Trains Running (set in 1969, written in 1990), Jitney (set in 1977, written in 1979), King Hedley II (set in 1985, written in 1999), and Radio Golf (set in 1997, written in 2005).
Gem of the Ocean runs through February 27 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $25-$80 and available online or at 312-443-3800. Covid protocols are in place: all guests must provide proof of vaccination. Masks are required at all times in the theater and patrons under 5 are not permitted.
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