Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre mines value in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean

Playwright August Wilson set out to be a poet. That predisposition, apparent in his facility with language, translates beautifully to the stage in the lyrical — and often magical — nature of his scripts.

In a league with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, Wilson is a power hitter of his own creation, dropping out of high school and self-educating at a library. In 1979, at age 34, he wrote his first play, Jitney, and he completed nine additional works — a series of 10 plays, each chronicling the African-American experience in a different decade of the 20th century. Eight saw Broadway productions, and Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for two: Fences (the film version nominated for an Oscar this year as Best Picture) and The Piano Lesson.

That Wilson accomplished his goal signals his prolificacy and his genius. Gem of the Ocean, onstage at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is the ninth that he composed, in 2003, but it’s the first in the series, a magnificent entry into black America in the early 1900s. (The final work, Radio Golf, premiered a few months before his death, at age 60, in 2005, and takes place in the century’s final years.)    

A Gem of the Ocean production seems a daunting task in length alone: Each of the acts runs an hour and 15 minutes. But Gem is well worth the investment of time. Wilson is a master of monologue, and his protracted discourses summon vivid imagery and layers of character. His dialogue, too, is rich in metaphor, wordplay, history and biblical reference, with elements of gospel, aphorism, song and humor. Gem, though, isn’t a series of talking heads — it’s cerebral yet visceral, full of conversation but steeped in action. Wilson’s average joes and janes, shaped in symbolism, connect to us with emotion and power.  

Monologues ultimately are as interesting as their messengers, and director Karen Paisley has assembled an excellent and cohesive cast, whose members stand strong solo as well. Two years ago, MET produced Wilson’s Jitney (winning Best Ensemble in The Pitch’s Best of KC issue), which Paisley also directed, and some of those actors reappear here. 

From the story’s opening lines, Wilson has us in Gem’s grip, and even parts that lag can’t lose their hold. While the play felt a bit unwieldy when I saw it, performers handled the occasional miscues, misplaced lines and frisky props with ease and aplomb. These issues will no doubt smooth out over the course of the play’s run. 

Paisley transports us to 1904 Pittsburgh, to that city’s Hill District — a favorite locale of Wilson’s works — with period props and vintage clothing (costumes by Shannon Regnier), and specifically to the home of Aunt Ester (Sherri Roulette-Mosley), a very old spiritual adviser and “soul cleanser.” (Her stated age of 285 places her birth in 1619, when the first slaves were brought to America.) It has been just 40 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and some inhabitants of Gem had lived in slavery, a legacy that infiltrates their lives and stories. 

Solly Two Kings (Granville O’Neal) escaped to Canada in 1857, then returned to help guide slaves on the Underground Railroad and scout for the Union Army. “You got to leave the country to get freedom,” he says. “You got to go up in Canada. They got civilized people up there.” Eli (Theodore Priest Hughes), Aunt Ester’s caregiver and gatekeeper, is an old friend of Solly’s from those former days. “It’s a war, and you always on the battlefield,” he says.

Slavery and the meaning of freedom are two of this play’s threads — “What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?” — as are meditations on truth, love, loneliness, law, capitalism and family. Free blacks at this time confronted major infringements on their rights, including being blocked from leaving parts of the South (Solly’s sister one of them).

In the North, they find a different type of servitude — at the local mill, where workers are on strike; or with a second master, of sorts, in Caesar (Jerron O’Neal), a black landowner and local policeman who views the law in black and white. Caesar’s sister, Black Mary (Shawna Peña-Downing), Ester’s housekeeper, cook (food is served up frequently in this house’s kitchen) and protégée, sees things differently from her brother. A traveling peddler, Rutherford Selig (George Forbes), frequently visits the house. And Citizen Barlow (Lewis J. Morrow), a young man in turmoil, comes in search of redemption and Ester’s healing. He needs to have his soul washed, he says.

It’s the symbolic journey that Citizen takes with Ester — to the ocean’s mythical City of Bones on a slave ship she calls “Gem of the Ocean” — that forms the backdrop and the backbone of this work (here incorporating power of suggestion as a device to realize it onstage). 

This play is a literary treasure, a work of resonance and vibrance that takes us on a journey. Wilson’s language and ideas transfix, and his characters, realized through these fine actors, leave their mark. 

Gem of the Ocean

Through March 11 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main, 816-569-3226, 

Categories: Stage, Theater