New African Grove Theatre goes back to the beginning with “Gem of the Ocean,” chronologically the first play in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s decade-by-decade, 10-play cycle about the African-American experience in the 20th-century. The company is one of only a handful in the U.S. to produce all 10 plays, having completed the journey with a 2018 production of “Radio Golf,” chronologically the last play, set in the 1990s.
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With “Gem,” the company turns the page back to the start with a fine and moving production. The play may not be as famous as masterpieces from the cycle like “Fences” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” but the production makes a strong case for the play’s power and soul-shaking potency.
Thematically, “Gem” is a play that anticipates much of what’s ahead, but its characters also arrive on stage heavy with the past. The action is set in the early 1900s in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and it centers on Aunt Ester (Monique Andress), a spiritual healer said to be centuries old. Ester and several of the other characters live with the scarring memories of slavery. Among the people who gather in her sanctuary home are her suitor Solly Two Kings (Keith Franklin), her helper Eli (Louie Love), and Black Mary (Jessica Briana Kelly) who earns her keep by doing the cooking and cleaning. Citizen Barlow (Josh Starr) is so desperate to escape his past, he’s fled Alabama, and he breaks into Aunt Ester’s home seeking her help in getting his soul clean. Ester ultimately guides Citizen on a spiritual journey towards self-discovery and redemption.
Andress makes a moving, powerful but very human Aunt Ester. Here, the character clearly has an otherworldly sort of insight and wisdom, but her earthy practicality and ever-present sense of humor also emerge memorably over the course of the play. Nic Starr makes a fittingly sinister and threatening Caesar, Black Mary’s brother, a villainous constable. The character helps initiate the cycle’s long, multifaceted consideration of the concepts of law and justice. Franklin captures Solly’s combination of dignity and humility: the character carries a piece of chain from his days as a slave, defiantly changing his name from “Uncle Alfred” to the more regal “Two Kings,” but he also picks up after dogs for fertilizer, caring little of what others think of this occupation.
In the play’s central scene, Citizen journeys on an imagined ship named Gem of the Ocean to the City of Bones; it’s a metaphorical, allegorical journey that’s challenging to bring across on stage. Here, it narrowly succeeds, but it’s threatened by overly loud, recorded drumming on the soundtrack, which sometimes drowns outspoken dialogue, while theatrical masks hide the actors’ faces. The sense of ritualistic healing comes across, but the scene loses some of its hallucinatory power in the less than successful stage business.
Still, director Amina S. McIntyre never shies away from the richness and depth with which Wilson lays out a complex mosaic. The play tells the intertwined stories of seven characters, tying their narratives and fates to themes from the rest of the cycle. Although “Gem” is technically the beginning, it also has a culminating feel (Wilson actually created “Gem” late in his career, and it’s among the cycle’s last plays to be written).
Wilson is seldom a playwright in a hurry, and the action and ideas take time to establish and dramatize. In all, the play — in two long acts with one intermission — clocks in at three hours, which may prove a journey too long for some theatergoers. However, those willing to begin the journey can rest assured there are rewards each step of the way. New African Grove lovingly and profoundly brings to life a powerful “Gem.”
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