Tonight my theatre buddy and I saw August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Arena Stage. We’ve been season ticket holders since the 2003-03 season. Our tickets are for preview night, which on some nights is like a polished dress rehearsal. The director typically sits a few rows behind us, takes notes and works on last-minute de-bugging – all of which makes the evening more interesting. Ticket prices are cheaper on preview night too.
Gem of the Ocean is a history lesson about the post-Reconstruction northward migration of African-Americans to communities such as the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It chronicles the experiences of one household’s members as they adapt to a life of freedom, i.e., citizenship, but under crippling economic exploitation. The protagonist, named Citizen, a destitute new arrival from Alabama, finds refuge in the home of 285-year-old Aunt Ester and employment at the local tin mill. In a subplot, one character tries to return to Alabama to rescue his sister, who cannot make the risky trip north on her own because of economic pressure and organized efforts to prevent African-Americans from leaving Alabama. After a bucket of nails is stolen from the mill, the local law enforcer (it’s unclear whether he works for the company, the state or is self-appointed), Ceasar, a self-hating African-American who inflicts terror on the household under the guise of upholding the law, chases down an accused mill employee. The accused drowns himself in the Monongahela River, at gunpoint, “to die in truth” rather than be falsely accused. The real culprit, overcome with guilt, reveals himself and seeks redemption from Aunt Ester.
The play until then is capably acted and easy to follow if you pay attention. (To the high school students sitting across the way from us who slept through the entire First Act: you missed out.) What follows probably is supposed to be “experimental,” and it makes great use of Arena Stage’s sophisticated lighting system. Aunt Ester announces that she and her cohorts will take the culprit to the “City of Bones” at nightfall so that he may redeem himself. The cast performs what must be a religious ceremony, at the City of Bones, a graveyard. According to the program notes, Citizen is cast into the hold of a slave ship, the “Gem of the Ocean,” and experiences the slave’s voyage to the new world. The ritual seems to incorporate African elements, but I’m not sure what exactly goes on. The program notes don’t explain it. That would have been helpful.
This is the second August Wilson production I have seen at Arena, and both were long. Wilson is not a word economizer. Sometimes the dialogue sounds artificial, stilted. Then again, the play takes place in 1904. Plan to spend at least three hours at the theatre.
Gem of the Ocean runs until March 18.