Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre’s “Gem of the Ocean” Triumphs

A shaky sound system. Neighborhood kids shouting. Three quick explosions of firecrackers. Honking of car horns. Emergency sirens. A noisy low-flying helicopter. It was opening night and the show must go on – and so it did with power and emotion.

Gem of the Ocean succeeds against many odds in this Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre production staged outdoors at the same Hill District location cited in August Wilson’s ninth play: 1839 Wylie Ave.

PPT’s founder Mark Clayton Southers’ decision to turn a grassy hillside into a theater faced a variety of obstacles that pushed the company “way over budget,” he admitted at opening night Aug. 23. A stage was built from scratch. In fact, hammer pounding could be heard almost at curtain time. Bulky lighting and sound equipment were erected and secured with tie-downs.

Once the play started, though, all the focus was on the stage, the parlor of Aunt Ester Tyler’s home in 1904, barely 40 years after Emancipation when slavery and its aftermath dominated the lives of African-Americans.

Aunt Ester (Chrystal Bates) and Citizen (Jonathan Berry)

As we mark the 400th year since the first slave ship docked on the shores of North America, the relevance of “Gem of Ocean” is sharper than ever. Its black characters, born slave and free, still drag around the chains of enslavement in the industrial north of Pittsburgh.

“These ain’t slavery times no more, Miss Tyler,” the vengeful constable Caesar Wilks announces. “You living in the past. All that done changed.”

That very little has changed is Wilson’s point. The local tin mill enslaves its workers like Southern tenant farming controls its workers. Slavery grips the nation as firmly as it did in 1860.

When Citizen Barlow, a troubled young man, pounds on Aunt Ester’s door demanding that she help him, he sets in motion events that pull the lid off the festering problems of Pittsburgh’s black community.

While Ester, played by veteran Chrystal Bates in a sharply moving performance, claims to be 285 years old, she isn’t, of course. Instead, she is the living legacy of the wisdom, suffering and forbearance experienced by all slaves in those years since 1619. (Her bill of sale suggests that she was born in the early 19th century.)

She is a conjure woman capable of recreating the horrors of the middle passage aboard the doomed slave ship the Gem of the Ocean and the undersea world of the dead in the City of the Bones built from their remains.

This eerie and chilling moment in the second act is perhaps Wilson’s greatest scene as a playwright. It demands the best of actors, and this cast of Bates, Jonathan Berry as Barlow, Kevin Brown as Solly Two Kings, Les Howard as Eli and Candace Michelle Walker as Black Mary is up to the task.

(L to R) Citizen (Jonathan Berry), Eli (Les Howard) and Solly Two Kings (Kevin Brown)

Directed by Andrea Frye, veteran director and performer with credits in Atlanta, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., the City of the Bones scene is vivid and memorable. Frye links all of its elements from dance, music and painful experience into a whole.

Maybe it’s Wilson’s version of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell” act from Man and Superman. He throws in echoes of Les Miserables as well in another scene when Caesar, played with villainous gusto by veteran Wali Jamal, justifies killing a man for stealing a loaf of bread.

“I had to shoot him. You can’t do nothing like that and get away with it. People don’t understand that the law is everything.”

Caesar is a stereotype – the Uncle Tom enforcing the white man’s law and prospering at it. Along with the traveling peddler Selig, an earnest Marcus Muzopappa, he is a minor character in Gem of the Ocean’s bigger picture about the passing along of legacy.

Black Mary, a servant in Aunt Ester’s home, will carry on her role when Ester dies. Solly, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, will pass his dedication to others on to Citizen.

Aunt Ester (Chrystal Bates)

Citizen and Black Mary will reappear in Wilson’s 10th and final work, “Radio Golf.”

Gem of the Ocean is a melodrama as well as an intimate piece of history. Violence touches 1839 Wylie Ave., with tragic consequences. The play’s nearly three hours ends abruptly, a quick conclusion to its scenes of meaningful dialog in the peaceful nature of Aunt Ester’s parlor.

The fine acting is equaled by the quality of the overall production including the original music by Kathryn Bostic that accompanied the earlier stagings of the play that first opened in 2003.

The sound system improved as the show went on, the lighting made the stage glow in the night and the costumes smartly reflected the era.

This is the second time around for Gem of the Ocean at Pittsburgh Playwrights. The Pittsburgh Public Theater staged it in 2006, a year after Wilson died. Each time I saw it, I learned something new. It’s a play worth seeing over and over again.

Gem of the Ocean runs through Sep. 22nd. For tickets and more information, visit Pittsburgh Playwright’s homepage. 


Photography Credit: J.L. Martello/ 18ricco


Bob Hoover retired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as its full-time book editor and drama editor in 2011 after 28 years with the newspaper. He continued to write part-time for the PG reviewing books, theater, and articles on literary, historical and local topics until 2014. Hoover has reviewed myriad entertainment productions from the circus to children’s theater in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Canada. As a book editor, he reviewed an average of 50 books a year, wrote regular columns on the local and national literary scene and organized and edited the newspaper’s weekly book section. He provided extensive coverage of Pittsburgh’s literary community as well as reporting on events, readings, and festivals around the country. Hoover was a theater journalism fellow at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and the winner of state and local writing awards.

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