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August Wilson's Entryway Into His Pittsburgh Cycle Reconfigures His Entire Dramatic Output

THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH: Lizan Mitchell catches souls.

By John Barry | Posted 4/9/2008

Gem of the Ocean

By August Wilson

At Everyman Theatre through April 27

At first glimpse, anyone who saw Center Stage's production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone this past winter might feel a sense of déjà vu at Everyman Theatre's Gem of the Ocean. The time frame for the two plays is early-1900s Pittsburgh. Gem's central character, a mysterious stranger from the South named Citizen Barlow, wanders in with almost the same dislocation as Turner's Harold Loomis. The essential conflict is similar--that of displaced people with little to work with but the repressive culture they were born into and a history and tradition that eludes them. Emigrants are beginning to swarm Pittsburgh with fragile dreams of a better future. And not only do these people have not only the original sin of slavery to deal with but their own sins as well.

Gem's chatty, convivial opening and the slow exposition that follows is typical Wilson. We meet those living in and around the household of Aunt Ester (Lizan Mitchell), a 287-year-old "soul catcher," in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Solly Two Kings (Keith N. Johnson) is an old ex-slave who collects dog shit and sells it as fertilizer for a living. Ester's younger assistant, Black Mary (Dawn Ursula), does laundry, cooking, and whatever else she wants her to do. Rutherford Selig (Stephen Patrick Martin), who frequently visit's Ester's house, is a white man who sells scrap metal and old pans for whatever he can get. Mary's brother Caesar (Kevin Jiggets) is a hard-boiled police officer; he wanders around with his billy club, six-shooter, and bowler hat, trying to keep the lid on worker discontent at the local steel mill. Their relative peace is broken by the entrance of Citizen Barlow (Jefferson A. Russell), a large, hulking worker who has escaped from the South only to find himself in more trouble than he's used to.

Ursula--she co-starred in Everyman's 2005 production of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman--turns the subordinate character Black Mary into one of the evening's high points with a fiery performance. In one memorable scene, she performs a variation on Chekhov's famous "The Bear" monologue, in which the Russian playwright unleashes his wrath at the so-called weaker sex. Here, Ursula takes the entire male species to task with help from Wilson's words. Black Mary appears to be an observer, but she is skeptical and schooled by experience, and Ursula adds a dose of 20th-century ironic wit to this early-1900s Pittsburgh woman.

As Citizen Barlow, Russell--who went into theater after serving as a Baltimore police officer--brings an appealing bewilderment to the role. He doesn't have the magnetic charisma of a Harold Loomis but is more of a sinner waiting to make a confession.

It would be a stretch to say that Wilson sees anything sympathetic in Caesar, but Jigget's lucid performance lends the character a certain eloquence. Mitchell has almost the opposite problem with Ester. As Gem progresses, Ester gradually turns into a metaphor. Wilson puts that idea front and center by making the woman 287 years old, having made her way to these shores on a slave ship, and now she's leading her house mates to the mythical City of Bones. Mitchell fortunately doesn't let Ester float aimlessly; her rapid-fire and energized delivery gives the character a down-to-earth appeal even when Wilson turns Ester into a spiritual healer.

Despite similarities to his other plays, Gem is a daring departure for Wilson. His work has often been described musically, and this one has an extended and somewhat experimental improvisation to it. It is as if Wilson saw the drama progressing in his accustomed way and decided, in his penultimate play, to unleash his inner oracle. When Wilson makes the leap to redemption in Gem's second act, he pushes the characters into a metaphorical region where he blurs the lines between incantation and speech.

His characters don African warrior masks, in an apparent re-creation of the chorus of Greek tragedy. It fits awkwardly into the template of a modern play--and onto the Everyman's small stage--but shows that two years before his premature death, in 2005 at age 60, Wilson was still stretching the limits of the medium. With Radio Golf at Center Stage, Baltimore audiences saw the chronological beginning of Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, and this one, the beginning, hits the cycle's spiritual core. Gem of the Ocean isn't a tightly crafted play, but it tells you more about Wilson himself--and his vision--than his neater efforts do. Now that Wilson is no longer around to speak for himself, Everyman does him credit with this ambitious and well-acted production.

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