Gem of the Ocean

By - Nov 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Jill Gilmer

During a 20-minute scene in the second act of Gem of the Ocean, the audience finds itself in the belly of an African slave ship, consumed by the sights, sounds and emotions of human bondage. Water literally pours through the walls of the playhouse, as if the theatre itself were crying symbolic tears for the terror and loss endured by a People. I emerged from the scene transformed.

My experience paralleled that of the protagonist in Gem of the Ocean, the epic play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. Gem opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre on Friday. It recounts the story of Citizen Barlow, a former African slave living in Pittsburgh in 1904. Tortured by guilt after committing a crime that led to a man’s death, Barlow seeks the assistance of Aunt Ester Tyler. Aunt Ester is a 286-year old woman reputed to be able to “cleanse souls.” Under her tutelage, Barlow embarks on a mystical journey to the City of Bones. This mythical place is a burial ground in the Atlantic Ocean for thousands of African slaves who expired on their torturous journey to the United States. Coming face to face with the grief of his past has a restorative effect on Barlow. He emerges from the City of Bones at peace with himself and empowered with a renewed sense of purpose for his life.

Gem of the Ocean uses the rarely discussed topic of African slavery to tell an epic story of redemption and spiritual renewal. The genius of this production is that director Timothy Douglas invites the audience to participate in Barlow’s spiritual transformation as more than mere spectators. He dares to evoke a type of transformation in them as well. By the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation, it was a risky gamble that paid off.

As with August Wilson’s other plays, Gem of the Ocean explores the problems that have plagued each generation of African-Americans. It studies the psychological roots of internalized racism, drawing back to its origins in slavery. It’s a timely analysis for Milwaukee and other cities that struggle with the persistent problems of poverty, crime, anger and despair in the black community. Although these issues have special relevance to African Americans, they are presented through characters with which people of all races can recognize and identify. By focusing on the core themes of faith, honor, love and duty, August Wilson presents a story that transcends race and has the potential to unite human beings.

The play suffers from two common criticisms of August Wilson’s work. It is exceedingly long – the total running time is 2 hours and 50 minutes. And the first act is, at times, painfully slow. But plowing through the first act is a worthwhile investment for the chance to experience the re-enactment of the Middle Passage in Act II.

The relatively inexperienced cast does a commendable job bringing a familiarity to rarely-seen characters: former African slaves. Particularly noteworthy is the performance of Stephanie Berry, who captures the wisdom, wry humor, youthful energy and eccentricities of Aunt Esther with finesse. Other standouts are Ernest Perry, Jr, as the wise Solly Two Kings, and Lanise Antoine Shelley, who plays the stoic housekeeper, Black Mary.

Gem of the Ocean
is, chronologically, the first play in Wilson’s 10-part series. Each play examines the African-American experience during a different decade of the 20th century. As the first play in the series, Gem lays a spiritual foundation for the rest. Other works in the series include: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Fences and Two Trains Running.

Mr. Wilson received innumerable accolades for his work, including a Tony Award for Fences, Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson, and an Emmy nomination for the television adaptation of The Piano Lesson, starring Charles Dutton. A string of notable actors have appeared in Mr. Wilson’s plays, including James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Phylicia Rashad. When August Wilson died in October 2005, playwright Tony Kushner remarked, “He was a giant figure in American theater. For all the magic in his plays, he was writing in the grand tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. He was reclaiming ground for the theatre that most people thought had been abandoned.” To honor his achievements, Broadway’s Virginia Theater was renamed the August Wilson Theater last year.

It is a feather in the cap of the Rep for bringing the distinguished Timothy Douglas to Milwaukee to direct Gem of the Ocean. Mr. Douglas, who received a Master in Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama, directed the world premiere of Radio Golf, the final play in Wilson’s 10-part series. He worked closely with Mr. Wilson in bringing it to the stage. In a recent interview, Mr. Douglas remarked, “You could say this production of Gem of the Ocean will allow me a soul cleansing of my own as I release my creativity into the ocean of legacy provided for me by these people who showed me the way.”VS

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production of Gem of the Ocean runs through November 19, 2006 in Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. For tickets and information, call 414-224-9490 or visit

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