Reviewed by Judy Richter
The late August Wilson's 10-play cycle of African American life in the 20th century stands as a monumental accomplishment, making him one of the century's greatest playwrights of any race. The penultimate play in terms of when it was written but the first play in the cycle is "Gem of the Ocean," which is set in 1904 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where all of the plays except for the '20s entry, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," are set. American Conservatory Theater is staging a strong production of "Gem" under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who appeared in the original Broadway production.
The action takes place in the home of Aunt Ester (Michele Shay), a 285-year-old former slave who was brought over from Africa as a young girl. Aunt Ester is known as a woman who can heal souls. It's that reputation that brings a troubled young man, Citizen Barlow (Owiso Odera), to her door one day. Recently arrived from the South, where blacks are still terribly mistreated, Citizen has discoverd that life isn't much better in the North, at least not when he tries to work at the local tin mill. He tells Aunt Ester he has killed a man.
Aunt Ester gives him a room and sends him off on a spiritual journey that climaxes in a stunning scene. Aunt Ester, joined by her handyman, Eli (Chuck Patterson); her housekeeper, Black Mary (Roslyn Ruff); and a longtime friend, Solly Two Kings (Steven Anthony Jones), leads Citizen in a hallucinatory ritual that evokes a slave ship's crossing of the Atlantic and the mythical City of Bones, home of all the Africans who died during the arduous trip.
Before then, however, Wilson has carefully introduced all these characters as well as Black Mary's half-brother, Caesar (Gregory Wallace), a rigid police officer who rules the neighborhood and who has no empathy for the plight of those less fortunate than he. The play's other character is Rutherford Selig (Raynor Scheine), a white traveling salesman who is friendly with Aunt Ester and her household.
Wilson also introduces strands of several stories that seem somewhat disparate at first, but gradually he weaves them together into a dramatic, cogent tapestry. As is typical of Wilson's style, several characters have long speeches that resemble arias and that tell of their experiences. In one such speech, for example, Solly Two Kings talks about his role in the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape from the South into the free North.
Although Wallace comes across as too much of the heavy right away -- almost like the sneering villain in a melodrama -- he does portray a man who appears to have forgotten his roots and his people. The other actors are terrific, especially Odera during Citizen's extraordinary transformation during the City of Bones scene. Shay's Aunt Ester could be a bit more mystical, but she carries herself with the dignity and authority that the ancient woman has earned.
The living room set by Michael Carnahan, with its steep staircase to the left; the dramatic lighting by Jane Cox; the period costumes by Karen Perry, especially a dress and matching hat for Black Mary; sound by Garth Hemphill; and music by Bill Sims Jr. and Broderick Santiago all work toward making this an outstanding, memorable production, one that surely would have made Wilson proud.