Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Gem of the Ocean,” is a problem and a blessing. The ninth work in August Wilson’s cycle of dramas depicting African-American life in the 20th century, the play feels like a big plate of steamed kale. The pleasure comes more from the satisfaction of eating something that’s good for you than it does from the taste of the thing you’re eating.
“Gem” is set in 1904, in the kitchen of a house on Wylie Street in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Aunt Ester (played by Sherri Roulette-Mosley) presides. She’s a sort of mythical 285-year-old former slave renowned as “a cleanser of souls.”
Orbiting Ester are her guardian Eli, played by Priest Hughes, and Black Mary (Shawna Peña-Downing,) Ester’s cook, housekeeper and protégé. A peddler, Rutherford Selig (George Forbes), drops by. As does Solly Two Kings (Granvile O’Neal). He gathers dog poop for a living. Later we meet lawman Caesar Wilks (Jerron O’Neal). The action really gets cooking, though, when portentously named Citizen Barlow (Lewis J. Morrow) asks Ester to cleanse his guilt, which she ultimately does, using a kind of hallucinatory regression therapy.
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What’s startling, given that the play is set more than century ago, is how remarkably fresh the work feels. Painfully so, in fact. Time and time again, casual bits of dialogue would sting with the full force of newsy truth. Like a line about Ester’s house as a sanctuary for those fleeing an unjust system of justice, which sent a cold shudder of recognition through the crowd. That chilling relevance, a combination of Wilson’s prescient talent and the state of American political life, earns MET artistic director Karen Paisley a big chunk of credit for choosing to produce this play.
Paisley and crew deserve further praise for their production values. Save for one literal misstep — when Hughes slipped on a loose stair — the costumes, set, light and sound design ably and unobtrusively framed the action. The sound of a distant dog barking to announce a visitor’s approach was a subtly effective touch. The lighting, with James Paisley at the boards, was particularly kind to Roulette-Mosley and her mesmerizing cheekbones.
The story is certainly gritty. Realism, however, is far from the point. “Gem” is less frequently performed than many of Wilson’s works, and it’s easy to see why. The show functions less like traditional drama than a sort of neo-mythology for the African-American experience. These characters feel Jungian, more representative of archetypes than breathing and bleeding human beings —this despite the profusion of bleeding that one character does in the second act.
Ester, so pointedly ancient, feels less like a person than a kind of mystical repository for knowledge and experience. Ditto for Citizen, who hovers somewhere between an actual man and metaphor for African-American manhood. Caesar the cop, representing the power of the state, might as well have Matthew 22:21 sewn on his chest.
None of this is to denigrate the story, however. Myth-making is important, and what the characters lack in depth, they make up for in the breadth of universality.
Let’s also note that Wilson’s dialogue in “Gem” has his emblematic sparkle, pardon the pun. Those high concept characters speak in down-home words, and Wilson’s rough-hewn wisdom about loneliness or love can make the highfalutin philosophizing of lesser playwrights look like superfluous semantic gymnastics. Who but Wilson, after all, could have characters flow effortlessly and believably from a discussion of legume-induced flatulence to the problem of theodicy?
Lest we forget, playing a symbol is hard. All the more impressive, then, when the actors on stage manage to imbue these symbolic creatures with some semblance of true humanity. Of the cast, a pair of actors stand out. Granville O’Neal gave Solly, the most fully human character in the play, a surprising insouciance. Jerron O’Neal was powerful, too, filling Caesar with a secretly wounded, glowering authority. Morrow, unaccountably blank during the first act, perhaps because of directorial choices, eventually exploded with raw pain in the second.
Be forewarned, theatergoers. “Drama” is an apt description of this long and troubling work. Wilson, in representing the African-American experience, categorically refused to give this story a sugar coating. This play, to be sure, is like eating your vegetables. Or perhaps more accurately, like downing a strange and bitter fruit. That very bitterness, though, is what makes “Gem” a story that all of us would do well to eat.