August Wilson was many things: a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, a scholar and a historian, as his 10-play cycle documenting the African-American experience of the 20th century attests. But who knew he could see into the future? How else to explain this snippet of dialogue from his 2003 play, Gem of the Ocean?
“Don’t never let nobody tell you there ain’t no good white people. They got some good white people down here, but they got to fight the law. In Canada, they ain’t got to fight the law. Down here, it’s a war.”
Solly Two Kings, a larger-than-life raconteur, says this in 1904 while recounting his experience of working on the Underground Railroad some 50 years earlier. But he could have been talking about 2017 just as easily, what with searing images of African and Middle Eastern refugees braving the elements to flee to Canada in the wake of what’s-his-name’s travel ban earlier this year.
Wilson, who died far too young at age 60 in 2005, probably could not have foreseen in his wildest imagination that 2003 America—as racked as it was by two foreign wars, the Patriot Act and an inept president—looked positively calm compared to America 2017. But it’s a testament to the force of his creative power that through mining the past, he unearthed veins of American history that course through this country’s past, present and future. The issues he addresses in Gem of the Ocean, the first play in his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, but the next-to-last to be written, are as relevant today as ever: class struggle viewed through a racial prism; the laws that disproportionally reflect on the poor and people of color; the critical importance of facing, acknowledging and accepting one’s past to have any hope of moving on.
Gem is not Wilson’s finest play. It lacks the dramatic cohesion and grounding in hardscrabble reality of some of his better-known works, such as 1987’s Fences. But it does rank among his most ambitious and epic, as shown by a surreal spiritual boat voyage to the City of the Bones, which feels equal parts Christian gospel, tribal African and voodoo. But his remarkable ability to capture the poetics and vernacular of (mostly) common people is on full display, as well as his concern to connect some of the strands in the patchwork, messy quilt of America to illustrate not only its darker shades, but also its redemptive hues.
There are at least two characters in Gem who are anything but common: the aforementioned Solly (a towering Cleavant Derricks), equal parts carnival huckster, Baptist preacher and freedom fighter, and Aunt Ester (an equally gripping L. Scott Caldwell), the play’s matriarch, who claims to have been born in 1619 (the first year Africans arrived in North America) and is a shaman and healer possessed with the apparent power to wash souls.
The arrival of Citizen Barlow (a strong Preston Butler III), a confused migrant from the American South with a checkered past, into Aunt Ester’s home, set against the backdrop of labor unrest in the North and the full-fledged emergence of Jim Crow in the South, creates a play that broaches the mythic and supernatural, as well as the very real agony of a country in which everyone is supposedly free, but no one knows what the hell freedom means or what to do with it.
One thing that is clear is that everyone is struggling to make sense of a still-new America 2.0 and their roles in it. As more than one character states, the Civil War is still being fought and blood is being shed, but now the combatants are not rival armies, but rather groups of people thrust into trying to solve an unwieldy equation of balancing the emerging new America with the tangled roots of its past.
Only one character—Caesar (an intense but too over-the-top Arnell Powell), the local constable—is sure of his place. He believes in the law and, more important, his role in enforcing it, as opposed to Solly and Aunt Ester, who remain committed to fighting for the dignity of their people; he thinks most blacks are lazy and shiftless, and since they lack the ability to take advantage of freedom, they might as well shut up and do what the law says.
It’s all staged on a terrific set designed by Edward E. Haynes and an evocative lighting and projection design courtesy of Dawn Chiang and Shawn Duan. Directed by Kent Gash, this is South Coast Repertory wielding its considerable technical prowess at its finest, without losing sight of the struggles of a country beset by division and burdened by chains of its past, but which still offers some glimmer of reconciliation—for those willing to fight for it.
Gem of the Ocean at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 11. $23-$83.