From the seats of A Noise Within to the middle passage, “Gem of the Ocean” transports audiences to Hill District, Pittsburgh in 1904. Citizen Barlow (Evan Lewis Smith) shows up to Aunt Ester’s home in search of answers but is shortly adopted into the family to uncover the guilt and secrets he’s held over his shoulders like chains.
The story follows a myriad of characters affected by the echoes of World War II and their history of enslavement during the Civil War. Citizen Barlow seeks salvation from Aunt Ester (Veralyn Jones), a 285-year-old spiritual healer. Solly Two Kinds (Kevin Jackson) fights against the efforts of Caesar Wilks (Chuma Gault), the local constable and brother of Black Mary (Carolyn Ratteray), while trying to help his sister in Alabama who is abused in the south. Meanwhile, Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s housekeeper and protégé, struggles to find agency while living under Aunt Ester’s roof. Eli (Alex Morris) pulls the characters together as the gatekeeper of the household and Rutherford Selig (Bert Emmett), the traveling peddler, brings news of the mill that shakes the town and represents the racial and economic struggles it faces.
The play is the first chronological installment of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. His writing is repetitive but purposeful. Underneath the words is a metaphor that speaks to the history of slavery and its echoes today. From the name ‘Citizen’ to the meaning of holding a large stick instead of a knife, the play does not hold back on exploring the power of words. Jackson eases through the language and metaphors, inflecting when to pay attention. Jones struggles in the beginning to deliver the same power but builds up the language in her monologue at the end of Scene 2 when she meets Citizen Barlow.
The language makes the play. It left me with even more questions about its impact on modern audiences. Caesar tells Solly he will have to arrest him if he keeps carrying his walking stick because it is a weapon. Solly’s immediate response is that it’s just a walking stick. The president and general get to carry walking sticks, yet they weren’t arrested because they weren’t black. An interaction from oceans and years away still ripples today through race politics and police brutality. I thought of Trayvon Martin who was killed for not even carrying a gun. I thought of the white men who carried guns and the black men who fear how they will be perceived in any given situation.
And it’s just a walking stick.
August Wilson still is important to audiences today and A Noise Within made that clear.
Gregg T. Daniel brought the story off its feet in moments of intimacy and expounded spectacle. In a brief moment between Citizen and Black Mary, Citizen takes his chance and pursues her. Instead of her swooning and falling for his advances, she proves he is all talk. Daniel’s direction to provide Black Mary’s character with agency in this moment is powerful. She takes his arms and wraps them around her herself and then prompts him with the question, “What you got?” Nothing. The shy housekeeper breaks down her walls to reveal how she is tired of being taken advantage of by men and won’t settle for a one-night stand.
In collaboration with scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier and sound designer Matin Carillo, Daniel paints a vivid depiction of the City of Bones, or the Middle Passage. As Citizen journeys through time and dimensions, the set collapses and rises to show the ship he takes along with slaves brought to America. He experiences the lashes, the cold and the torture endured by the many who died on that ship as Aunt Ester pushes him to confess his sin of killing a man with his lies. From the chains attached around his wrists and the light shining on his face from the small opening in the floor, image after image is highlighted by the designers. The technical team worked magic to bring this pivotal moment to life.
Solly eventually goes to aid his sister and Citizen joins him to make it back to Alabama. However, it is revealed that Solly burned down the mill and Caesar goes after him. In a twist of fate, Solly’s death results in Citizen’s arrival. Citizen takes Solly’s coat and walking stick to continue the journey Solly started by traveling north from Alabama.
“Gem of the Ocean” follows the generational build of the characters inhabiting Aunt Ester’s home. The baton is passed from one generation who escaped slavery to the one continuing the fight past the civil war. The play is the first iteration of Wilson’s cycle and reveals the beginning of the constant and long narrative of the African American community pushing boundaries to be heard amid racist actions taken by the government and society.
“So live,” Eli says to finish the play. So live.
“Gem of the Ocean” runs now through November 16th at A Noise Within. Tickets start at $25, or $20 with Student Rush. More information and tickets can be found here.