Redemption and refuge permeates the home of Aunt Ester Tyler, the 285-year-old former slave and prophetess at the moral center of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s deeply spiritual, beautifully poignant 2005 Tony Award-nominated drama “Gem of the Ocean,” set in 1904 Pittsburgh and marvelously presented in its local premiere by the Human Race Theatre Company.
Known to possess the power to “wash people’s souls,” Ester (the terrifically earthy Dwandra Nickole) embraces the opportunity to help distressed drifter Citizen Barlow (the dynamic Jonathan Berry whose cadence evokes Denzel Washington) overcome his burdensome guilt and murderous past. In the thrilling climax of Act 2, one of the most haunting, mesmerizing passages in Wilson’s repertoire, Ester, craving the credo that life is an adventure, guides Citizen from her quaint abode at 1839 Wylie Avenue (strikingly designed by Dick Block) to the mystifying City of Bones, a mythic voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in the titular ship made of her bill of sale. The intensely gripping, nightmarish excursion, compellingly interpreted by Berry and exceptionally heightened by lighting designer John Rensel and sound designer Rich Dionne, vigorously thrusts Citizen into a renewed awareness of his ancestry in order to gain salvation.
As Ester and Citizen’s genuine kinship evolves, Wilson paints a vividly relevant portrait of the post-Civil War African-American struggle to survive and assimilate in the industrial North while consumed with memories of slavery and loved ones left behind in the South. Clinging to the deep-rooted values of legacy, family and faith, practically every character is moving forward while looking back, desiring some sense of fulfillment despite prejudices, even within their own race, that poison progress. By and large, their future doesn’t look promising, primarily for the simple reason that freedom and being free are not always identical.
Effectively sprinkled with biblical references, the remarkable, authentically-rich dialogue – eloquent, fiery, humorous, joyful, and provocative– significantly fuels the potency of “Gem,” the chronological launching pad for Wilson’s signature 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” spotlighting the African-American experience in the 20th century. Whether simple (“sometimes you can find good luck and bad luck in the same place”) or contemplative (“man sometimes get in the way of God’s creation and turn it over to the devil”), Wilson’s captivating words resonate as if heard anew. In fact, when Ester’s kindly friend Eli (the delightfully easygoing Kevin Brown) proudly proclaims he’s going to build a wall, his modest statement wafts through the air like music. Kudos to director Mark Clayton Southers, a 2001 Dayton Playhouse FutureFest finalist for “Ashes to Africa,” for ensuring this masterful work never loses its infectious rhythm by wallowing in melodrama or buffoonery. By all means, it clearly sings with the radiant insight it deserves.
Southers’ sublimely synchronized cast, attractively costumed in period attire by Colleen Alexis Metzger, also features excellently detailed performances by Bryant Bentley as vengeful law enforcement officer Caesar Wilks, Alan Bomar Jones as the colorfully eccentric Solly Two Kings, Scott Stoney as rascally peddler Rutherford Selig (who also appears in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”), and the amiable Marva M.B. Williams as Black Mary, Ester’s literate laundress. Bentley’s hypocritical hotheadedness, Jones’ unpretentious gusto, Stoney’s endearing spunk, and Williams’ cool reserve add flavorful dimensions to their character’s respective aims. In addition to providing a wonderfully dramatic City of Bones sequence, Southers firmly tackles Caesar and Ester’s powerful debate concerning the law, firmly executed by Bentley and Nickole, and Citizen and Mary’s romantic cuddle sizzling with charm, nuance and magnetism from Berry and Williams.
Citizen’s life-changing journey of forgiveness, liberation and rebirth will surely grab you without letting go. It should come as no surprise that one of the best productions of the season stems from the brilliant mind of August Wilson.
“Gem of the Ocean” continues through Sunday, April 15 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 80 minutes; Act Two: 70 minutes. Tickets are $18.50-$40. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.