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THEATER REVIEW: Cygnet’s “Gem Of The Ocean”

Playwright August Wilson immortalized the African-American experience in his 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” each play covering one decade of the 1900s.

Victor Mack directs, with Sean Murray co-directing, the San Diego premiere of “Gem Of The Ocean,” the first play in the chronological sequence (though one of the last written), at Cygnet Theatre through Feb. 24.

It’s 1904, and though slavery is no longer legal, neither has the promise of meaningful freedom been fulfilled. Many former slaves have moved north in search of work; here in Pittsburgh, many of them work at the local mill.

The play takes place in the Hill District home of 287-year-old Aunt Ester Tyler (Brenda Phillips), a local oracle who serves as the link between the characters’ African past and the African-American present. (Ester’s age represents the number of years since the first African slaves arrived on American shores.) Aunt Ester is a former slave and the keeper of African-American history, mythology and ritual.

The agitated and troubled Citizen Barlow (Laurence Brown) pounds on the door to see Aunt Ester and have his “soul washed,” but her gatekeeper Eli (Grandison M. Phelps III) sends him away, telling him Ester sees people only on Tuesday.

Citizen, who stole a bucket of nails and framed someone else (and later murdered a man), will eventually be shepherded by Ester to the City of Bones, the final resting place for slaves who did not survive the infamous Middle Passage trip to the New World, or who chose death over slavery. It is here that Citizen will have his soul washed and gain control over his life.

In another plot strand, a man accused of stealing nails wades into the river and refuses to come out, eventually drowning. This sparks a riot, a strike – and the eventual torching – of the mill, the primary source of income for many of Pittsburgh’s African-Americans.

Solly Two Kings (Antonio “TJ” Johnson) is the most engaging character, a former slave who escaped to Canada but returned to help other slaves as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He replaced his slave name with Two Kings (for David and Solomon). He still carries a walking stick with 62 notches, one for each person he conducted to safety on the railroad. His is the most positive presence, and the most amusing.

Solly is about to take on another risky assignment: a return to Alabama to find his sister, who has written a letter asking him asking him to come for her.

Also in Ester’s house is Black Mary (Melva Graham), Aunt Ester’s young protégé and housekeeper. Black Mary is at odds with her brother, local constable and sellout to Whitey Caesar Wilkes (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid). Caesar is the sort who won’t hesitate to imprison or even kill his own people in the interest of upholding the law. When the mill is torched, Caesar is on a warpath that leads to Eli’s friend Solly.

The last character is Rutherford Selig (Ron Choularton), a white peddler and sympathizer with the black cause who comes by to sell pots and other kitchen items.

The story plays out on Andrew Hull’s brilliant set: a big old house with long staircase, ancient stove, old furniture and a lived-in look. Shelly Williams’ costumes add the right note. And speaking of notes, Leonard Patton contributes lovely vocal arrangements.

All these characters are scarred by the past, but trying to move into the future. From Brown’s tortured Citizen to Black Mary, needing to distance herself from her only kin, to Abdul-Rashid’s sell-out Caesar, Wilson points out that words on paper don’t mean much; for all the lovely words in the 13th Amendment, African Americans still have a difficult time scratching out a living.

The weak spot in the cast should be the strongest. Phillips’ Aunt Ester, the African-American oracle, is more matter-of-fact than compelling as a presence.

Wilson’s plays are characterized by musicality of speech and the use of blues and spirituals in transitions. These are evident here as well. The problem with this script is that too much of it consists of long speeches. It often seems as if the characters are talking to hear themselves talk rather than to communicate with each other.

Wilson is the first black playwright to achieve commercial success since Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin In The Sun” in 1959.

The details/

“Gem Of The Ocean” plays through Feb. 24 at Cygnet Theatre,
4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.