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Greta Oglesby and Yvette Ganier in Gem of the Ocean
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
The esteemed August Wilson -- a good bet for a future Nobel Prize -- now has completed nine of his proposed cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience in the 20th Century, one play per decade. While he pursued the decades in random order, Wilson always knew that his play for the 1990s would be the last of the cycle, as that decade hadn't unfolded at the start of his work. What he didn't know was that his play about the first decade of the 20th century would be the penultimate, giving him the opportunity -- which he is seizing -- to create thematic bookends for the cycle.

Wilson already has begun the 10th and final play. Meanwhile, the ninth, Gem of the Ocean, is having its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (through May 24). It will come to New York in the fall after a summer stop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Seven of the eight previous plays in the cycle have been set in the Hill District black ghetto of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where Wilson grew up (now urban renewed out of existence), and so is Gem of the Ocean. It is 1904. The rural poor flock to the city seeking the freedom and equality promised to them by the Civil War a generation earlier. Instead, they find work at substandard wages under exploitive conditions, with a black puppet -- the ruthless and aptly named Caesar -- appointed by the white Establishment to control (and profit at the expense of) people in the District.

Their place of sanctuary is the dilapidated mansion that's home to Aunt Esther. An ancient Hill District holy woman discussed in two other plays but never seen until now, Aunt Esther is 285 years old, an age commensurate with the history of slavery in America. She washes troubled souls in spiritual journeys combining Christian and pagan African iconography. Into her home she welcomes 67-year-old Solly Two Kings, who was born into slavery and scouted for the Union Army, and Citizen Barlow, a troubled, purposeless young man from Alabama. A faithful retainer, Eli, serves as Aunt Esther's gatekeeper while Caesar's sister, Black Mary, is her housekeeper.

There is a great deal of exposition in the play, but it introduces conflicts that inform the entire cycle: the conflict between Christianity and African spiritual values; between the ideal of freedom and contemporary urban reality; between personal integrity and social order. In a key incident, Solly Two Kings raises a rebellion against the new slavery enforced by Caesar, and Citizen becomes Solly's spiritual heir. Almost always unseen and unmentioned in Wilson's plays is the 900 lb. gorilla of dominant white society, proscribing black culture and pushing it inward, initiating the cycle of black-on-black exploitation and violence that permeates the series. Still, "There are good white people," Solly Two Kings states -- such as Rutherford Selig, a traveling peddler who comes and goes through Aunt Esther's back door (and reappears in a later play). Although secondary in Gem of the Ocean, this is an important idea for Wilson to establish in the opening play of his cycle.

Kenny Leon in Gem of the Ocean
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
As always, Wilson's themes are large, his character writing expansive and rambling. It's a three-hour journey before all of the elements coalesce. Yet, again as always, the language and rhythms are rich and riveting throughout the long ride. No one writing plays today creates such detailed, complete, and thoroughly human characters; even when those characters serve as mouthpieces for various points of view, the power (or humor) of their aria-like pronouncements astounds and fascinates. A supreme stylist who seems to have been influenced by Eugene O'Neill, Wilson is thoroughly in command of his milieu.

The Goodman production is directed by Marion McClinton, with whom Wilson has had a long and productive relationship. McClinton understands the operatic nature of Wilson's work and the fact that these plays cannot be rushed. The telling -- the testimony, if you will -- is just as important as the tale. A loving and astute ensemble works as a single being here: its members are Paul Butler (Eli), Kenny Leon (Citizen), Greta Oglesby (Aunt Esther), Raynor Scheine (Selig), Yvette Ganier (Black Mary), Anthony Chisolm (Solly), and Peter Jay Fernandez (Caesar), most of whom are veteran Wilson actors. The cavernous, dark, moody, tiled, and columned mansion was designed by David Gallo and lit by Donald Holder. The witty costumes -- including a natty dress for Caesar and a Union Army coat for Solly -- are by Constanza Romero.

Wilson may be expected to do further work on Gem of the Ocean; we could stand to learn more about Citizen and Eli, for example, and it would be effective if Black Mary assumed greater importance vis-à-vis Caesar and Citizen. But August Wilson does not write bad plays, and Gem of the Ocean has major strengths upon which to build.

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