August Wilson´s Gem

Review by Willard Manus

August Wilson's latest play, GEM OF THE OCEAN, is really two plays in one. Set in 1904 in the Hill District, Pittsburgh's black ghetto, GEM deals with the underground railroad that still operated at the time, a reaction to the post-Emancipation Proclamation betrayal of blacks in the USA. Instead of being able to enjoy the freedom and equality promised by Abraham Lincoln, blacks found themselves pressed into bondage on sharecropper farms and in prison-like factories. Those who tried to flee were hunted down by dogs and police; hence the need to find secret passage to the north (the true Promised Land was Canada).

GEM is set in a household belonging to Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashard) and serving as a way station for fugitive blacks. Aiding Aunt Ester are two servants, Eli (Al White) and Black Mary (Yvette Ganier); and Solly Two Kings (Anthony Chisholm), a bizarrely dressed kind of urban witch doctor who carries a "magical" African staff and peddles quack medicine (such as dried dog turds). Solly Two Kings' mission is to rescue his sister from the KKK hell of Alabama, which means having to return to the south himself in order to usher her to freedom.

Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks) has just come out of that human pipeline, having fled Alabama to escape a prison term for a crime he did not commit. His arrival triggers much of the play's action (which is sorely lacking in this sprawling three-hour-long oratorical drama; Wilson's long suit has always been language, not story). Barlow is young, angry and hungry, and his description of the racism and brutality of the unreconstructed south is vivid and shocking.

Barlow is pitted against Caesar (Peter Francis James), a strutting black straw boss and constable who tries to outdo white folks in his devotion to law and order. Caesar cuts Barlow a little slack only because he is Black Mary's brother. Wilson makes him such a cartoon that it's hard to believe anything he says or does. But he does at least give impetus to the main narrative thrust of Plot Number One.

Plot Number Two has to do with Aunt Ester, who we are given to believe is 285 years old, a seer and mystic who stands for the eternal heart and soul of the African people. Rashad struggles valiantly to bring this fanciful character to life, but with her grey wig and folksy pronouncements, she unfortunately resembles the Aunt Jemima stereotype that George C. Wolfe ridiculed and demolished in The Colored Museum.

Aunt Ester keeps talking about the "city of bones," the underwater grave of the innumerable African slaves who died en route to the USA and were dumped overboard. There can be no redemption, no peace, for Barlow until he confronts the tragic history and demise of his African ancestors.

Aunt Ester and her family also talk a lot about Christianity, quoting time and again from the bible to remind each other--and, by extension, the audience--of the oft-betrayed message of Christ, that all men are equal under God. This turns much of GEM OF THE OCEAN into a religious argument which doesn't jibe with the realistic drama about working-class, ghettoites struggling to survive in a hostile, uncaring world.

Wilson tries to link together the play's disparate elements by his impassioned use of language and poetry. GEM is packed with long speeches and rants, dialogue that's steeped in the pungent music and imagery of African-American speech. Trouble is, there's so much of it that it loses impact over the course of the evening.

Wilson talks the talk in his latest play, but doesn't walk the walk.

At the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N Grand Ave, L.A. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit