Gem Of The Ocean
By August Wilson
Directed by Julia Listengarten
UCF Conservatory Theatre, Orlando FL
Lincoln freed the slaves, but in practical terms did little more for them. By 1904 the legality of slavery was gone but the essentials of the practice hung on – down south the whites blocked the blacks from moving north while in Pittsburgh the mill owners hired people to indenture them. Citizen Barlow (Robert Wright) snuck out of the Alabama post-slavery slavery and into the Pennsylvania version. Crimes happen and now needs his “soul washed” by Aunt Ester (Belinda Boyd). She 285 years old but doesn’t look a day over 70 and freely admits she has no supernatural powers. The local Uncle Tom enforcer Caesar Wilks (Michael Rodney) is on Citizen’s trail and wields a gun and a badge and makes the LAPD look like a bunch of bunny rabbits. Black Mary (Kevia Goins) and Eli (Terrance Jackosn) house with Aunt Ester, Mary is Ceasar’s sister and Eli’s buddy is Solly Two Kings (David Tate). They worked the Underground Railroad and scouted for the Union Army. Now there’s labor tension in the air and smoke from a burning mill, and it takes a trip to the city of bones to save Citizen’s soul.
Wilson’s Pittsburg Cycle tells the African American experience decade by decade, and this was the second last of the plays written. While Wilson still plays up the black stereotypes, they are less blunt here and the players feel more nuanced even if the situation is more extreme. The toughest guy is Caesar; Rodney plays him as the tough, brutalist who holds the law above all else even to the point of offering the death sentence without trial for stealing a loaf of bread. The brightest light on stage is Tate’s Solly. He funny and florid and not afraid of anything. He carries a big stick and isn’t afraid to use it, and he’s the uncle you’d like to tell you all his war stories. Jackson’s Eli voices reason and calm, and deflects the public from this House of Refuge. The enigma lies in Aunt Ester, her spiritualism is a mixture of the Bible and tribal gods and common sense and she send Citizen out to find “two pennies lying on the ground next to each other” just to get him out of the house. Citizen is big and naive and well intended, he’s the teddy bear type who does all the hard work and get none of the reward while Black Mary swishes and bitches and cooks and cleans. She’s the stable black mama who can swing a mom or her hips with equal effect.
Like all Wilson shows this one rattles the rafter with symbolism, and while the first act tends to plod and preach the best part of this show is Citizen’s journey to the City of Bones to confront his own sins and the sins brought upon his race. The set is cloth and canvas, at first it appears a budget decision but when the wind rises and sea turns rough, it’s a serviceable ship to the underworld and back. Whipped in the South and wupped in the North, the principal message here is you can’t just free the slaves and then leave them to their own devices – someone will always try to put them back on the plantation, just where they think they belong.
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