The Gem of the Ocean was a slave ship, but the gem of Trinity Repertory Company is the searing emotion conjured as part of a riveting retelling of August Wilson’s play by the same name.
Chronologically, Gem of the Ocean is the first in Wilson’s Century Cycle plays relaying the 20th-century Black experience. It is the sixth staged at Trinity, this time in the hands of Director Jude Sandy, who draws together an impressive cast that splays open the pain, anger and destruction of the early 1900s in a way that leaves audiences raw yet cautiously hopeful.
Hemmed with the directive “Live,” the story centers on a southerner new to a gritty Pittsburgh mill community and the hardships of being Black in a world ruled by wealthy white men and their hired Black enforcers. The southerner, Citizen Barlow, played by Christopher Lindsay, makes a poor decision in his struggle to survive, costing another man his life. He comes to elderly spiritualist Aunt Ester, begging her to cleanse his soul.
Initially unmoved by his angst, Aunt Ester invites Citizen to stay in the home she shares with nephew Eli and boarder, Black Mary. He sets to work building a stone wall for Eli and romancing Black Mary while fretting about his sin.
Wilson skillfully examines the plight of Blacks four decades after Emancipation, when they still must secretly escape the south as Citizen does, yet cannot carve out decent lives with enforcement officers like Black Mary’s brother, Caesar, clamping down on them with an air of evil supremacy.
“They say freedom is what you make it, but what good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?” Citizen bemoans.
Sandy takes this impactful story – which climaxes as Aunt Ester guides Citizen on a metaphysical journey to the oceanic graveyard, City of Bones, for redemption – adds simple staging and delicious physical acting, creating a theatrical experience that is equally draining and inspiring. In the spiritual journey scene, for example, with gauzy white curtains blowing and Citizen enraptured, the true power and impact of Black spirituality become transportive and mesmerizing.
Citizen emerges cleansed, but his journey is not over as he prepares to travel south to rescue the sister of Aunt Ester’s sweetheart, Solly Two Kings. Two Kings’ own actions, borne of frustration and anger, derail the trip and spark more tragedy.
This Gem of the Ocean cast showcases the breadth and depth of Trinity’s company. Sandy draws veteran Rose Weaver back from Georgia for her first Trinity production since Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” in 2001. The move is brilliant as her rich, expressive delivery powers the production.
However, with monologues that stretch the play to two hours and 45 minutes, every cast member has ample opportunity to shine: Veteran Ricardo Pitts Wiley infuses Two Kings with palpable indignance, Mauro Hantman lends peddler Selig a quirky humor and Dereks Thomas alternates between comic and somber demeanor as Eli.
The heart of the production lies in the contributions of Lindsay, Liz Morgan as Black Mary and Joe Wilson Jr. as Caesar. Lindsay physically exhausts himself with wrenching speeches about racial and economic inequity and a visceral reaction to Aunt Ester’s prayers. Wilson’s physical skills are beyond comparison, as he radiates evil with high arching eyebrows and lips that twist almost vertical in a sneer. And just when it seems that Black Mary is a minor character, Morgan bursts forth with an explosive performance; she cries, she exults, always with the same degree of passion felt in the back row. Gem of the Ocean, a memorable, inspiring story about living one’s truth despite what’s happening around you, is on stage through March 27. For more information, go to www.trinityrep.com.
This article was amended to correct a reference to Liz Morgan as “Mitchell” in the final paragraph, and to correct Trinity Rep’s website from trinityrep.org to trinityrep.com.