Gem of the Ocean docks in Old Town

Gem of the Ocean is about African Americans searching for identities in 1904 Pittsburgh.
  • Gem of the Ocean is about African Americans searching for identities in 1904 Pittsburgh.

The Gem of the Ocean was a slave ship. It’s also a piece of paper Aunt Ester folds to look like one. The captain was such a “mean man,” such a “selfish man,” when the boat got into trouble, instead of going down with it, he snuck away on a lifeboat. Not only that, he reversed nature: “He took all the water and left the crew to die. But they survived. They followed the law of the sea. Life is above all...so live!”

Only one American playwright could have told this story — August Wilson — and only near the end of his life, when the call for a final summation nags the mind as much as trivial memories. Shakespeare may not have considered The Tempest his last play, but his wise observations feel gleaned from a lifetime of experience. Also Billy Budd, where Herman Melville puts the letter and spirit of the law on trial. And whoever filled Ecclesiastes with sagacity was certainly no pup.

Though he wrote it near the end of his life, Gem of the Ocean (2004) is the first play in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle.” He wrote one per decade from 1904 to 1997. All take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In the last of the cycle, Radio Golf (which Wilson was working on when he died in 2005), the Hill has become “blighted,” and Harmond Wilks wants to redevelop it. He learns to respect the run-down, “human eyesore” of a house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, where the legendary Aunt Ester held her mystical sway.

The idealistic Harmond is a far cry from his grandfather, Caesar Wilks. As often happens with Wilson’s characters, the name tells all. To Caesar, a local constable in Gem, the laws of the land are black and white, especially for blacks. He’s such a negative force, so mythically cruel, that if he wanted, like the captain of the boat, he could make water flow overboard.

Caesar’s the opposite of Aunt Ester. She isn’t the Aunt Esther of Sanford and Son (though Wilson may be picking up resonances). Aunt Ester’s biography defies scientific laws as much as virgin birth. By her count, she’s 285 years old. She came from Africa on a slave ship in 1619. She lost everything in transit and, through a spiritual transformation, discovered “it.” She reinvented herself and the world around her, even renamed the stars. Along with being the history of African Americans, Ester has a gift for “washing souls” and shepherding people toward their true identity.

Citizen Barlow among them. He came north looking for opportunity. Like so many other African Americans at the turn of the 19th Century, he finds that “hard times” are just as abundant on the Mason side of the line. A job at the mill put him in debt even before he started work. Many of Wilson’s characters are so alienated, they can have luck, even love, and not know it. Citizen Barlow feels “unfinished,” not “right with himself,” in search of stable ground.

“It’s hard to be a citizen,” says Solly Two Kings, referring to life for blacks in the north and to young Barlow. “What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?” Gem answers this question with a tapestry of possibilities, each harkening back to Aunt Ester’s reinvention on the boat — and discovering the law of the sea.

Cygnet Theatre’s production honors the play’s epic scope and amazing language but could take the “air” out of the spaces between speeches and pick up the pace. If anything, the cast’s a mite too reverent for Wilson’s irreverent look at official American history.

Andrew Hull’s set — almost ancient wooden stairs and furniture — subtly reinforces one of Wilson’s themes. Eli (a stately Grandison Phelps III) wants to build a wall around the house to “keep Caesar on the other side.” But he can’t, as the set demonstrates: tall empty gulfs separate the “walls” onstage, making 1839 Wylie Avenue a porous sanctuary.

Antonio “TJ” Johnson does full justice to Solly Two Kings, a larger-than-life battler for freedom (and one of Wilson’s most trenchant commentators). On paper, Caesar Wilks is as rigid as the law he enforces. Mujahid Abdul-Rashid accepts the one-note challenge and plays it to the hilt. Ron Choularton, as expected, does first-rate work as Selig, the traveling peddler. Brenda Phillips is capable as Aunt Ester but could probe her mystical depths a bit more.

Gem of the Ocean is about searching for identities, freedom, racism (from without and within), and life for African Americans in 1904 Pittsburgh. It’s also a changing of the guard. From afar, Citizen Barlow and “Black Mary” Wilks are unlikely candidates to fill the courageous shoes of Aunt Ester and Solly Two Kings. As played by Laurence Brown and Melva Graham, both begin unmoored: Citizen needing his soul scrubbed clean for a crime he may not have committed; Black Mary (her name suggests “Black Madonna,” apocryphal daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene) labors almost like a slave. Brown and Graham make impressive transformations: he from a magical trip to the City of Bones; she from deep within. Each develops, in the words of William Cullen Bryant, an “unfaltering trust,” in themselves and the law of the sea.

Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson

Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

Directed by Victor Mack; cast: Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Laurence Brown, Ron Choularton, Melva Graham, Antonio “TJ” Johnson, Grandison Phelps III, Brenda Phillips; scenic design, Andrew Hull; costumes, Shelly Williams; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound design/original music, Kevin Anthenill

Playing through February 24; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525

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