the same neighborhood in Pittsburg, each tackling that decade’s most significant challenges for the African-American families who lived, loved, struggled and eventually died there.
Just attempting such a thing was an undertaking unparalleled in the history of American playwriting, and that the resulting works were uniformly excellent—six of them nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, two of them winning it—is extraordinary.
Which brings us to ‘Gem of the Ocean’—running through February 14 at Marin Theatre Company. Wilson’s penultimate play, ‘Gem of the Ocean’ arrived in 2003, two years before he died of cancer. ‘Gem’ marks the chronological beginning of the ten-play cycle, set as it was in 1904. Throughout Wilson’s previous plays, there was the occasional reference to a woman named Aunt Ester, a kind of spiritual guide and protector whose doors were always open to anyone in need.
‘Gem of the Ocean’ was the play that finally gave us Aunt Ester in all her glory. She was worth the wait. Though set in the early 1900’s, there is a specific timelessness to this play, sewn into the script like the old quilts and collages that Wilson often said were the inspiration for his work. Like all of his works, Gem of the Ocean blends lush historical detail and remarkably well-drawn characters into a plot that unfolds like an old roll of fabric.
In Daniel Alexander Jones’ sometimes baffling, but still emotionally rich staging, Wilson’s engaging script is embellished with a kind of hand-clapping, finger-snapping, sign-language-style choreography that resembles dance, but stops short of having his characters actually burst into ballet or the soft shoe. It’s a technique Jones calls “theatrical jazz,” a style the young New York-based director has become known and celebrated for.
Whether the play calls for such initially distracting ornamentations, whether or not the story is actually strengthened by this distinctively, almost ritualistically musical style of performance, is ultimately beside the point. ‘Gem,’ after all, is the most mystical and “ritualistic” of Wilson’s works, and Jones’ aesthetic eventually starts to make a kind of otherworldly sense.
There is a lightness and playfulness to the entire production, which makes it stand out from other productions of ‘Gem’ that I’ve seen, and the sense of determined hopefulness and ragged joy that rises from the story’s accumulating tragedies at times feels almost revolutionary.
The story, enacted by a tremendously strong cast, follows a group of lost, wounded souls who’ve found a refuge in the home of Aunt Ester, played with brilliant, buoyant groundedness by Margo Hall. Ester, who claims to be 285 years old—born the year slaves first arrived in the New World—serves as the personification of her people’s collective memory of slavery. Throughout the 2-1/2 hour play, Ester welcomes a guilt-ridden newcomer named Citizen Barlow (played with roiling emotions by Namir Smallwood), and ushers him through a series of initiations that include a trance-like guided visualization to a city of bones at the bottom of the sea.
Though there are challenges along the way, in this bold, impeccably acted reinterpretation of an American masterpiece, the audience travels right along with Citizen Barlow, all of us taking a similar journey, one that is as mysterious and strange as it is illuminating, devastating and beautiful.
‘Gem of the Ocean’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through February 14 at Marin Theatre Company. www.marintheatre.org