Encore Michigan

Detroit Rep’s ‘Gem Of The Ocean” a Gem indeed

Review January 16, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–August Wilson’s Gem of The Ocean is a complex quilt of characters set in 1904 Pittsburgh, 39 years after slavery was abolished–a time when there were plenty of people alive who had lived in bondage and remembered Abraham Lincoln with the recent familiarity that people today remember Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Because of the time and place, some may feel it is a bit of a period piece. Except it’s not. It’s all too fresh. And the current production at The Detroit Repertory Theatre does Wilson’s play plenty of justice.

Gem is the first part of Wilson’s decade-by-decade 10-play chronicle— dubbed the Century or Pittsburg Cycle — exploring themes of self-identity, freedom and the African American experience over time.

The play is set in one location, the house of 285-year-old Ester Tyler (Madelyn Porter) who is a “soul cleanser” who was formerly enslaved, and who came from Africa on a slave-ship. Ester lives with Black Mary (Dominique Byrd), her housekeeper and “adopted” daughter, and her spiritual guard Eli (Hugh M. Duneghy II) There is also Solly Two Kings (David W. Skillman), who also used to be enslaved and helped others escape by working on the Underground Railroad with Eli. Caesar (Dan Johnson) is Mary’s brother, and also the local constable. Citizen (jon kent) is a newcomer from Alabama who has almost nothing in his pockets and needs the help of Esther and her troupe of family to bail him out of his troubles, not unlike if he was a runaway slave four decades earlier.

Caesar, despite being black, is a hard-assed policeman who takes much satisfaction in chasing down folks for even the smallest transgressions. This is part of Wilson’s complex tapestry of characters, young and old, white and black, who are traveling through two worlds of black oppression, past and present.

Is there a window of understanding to be had in this play about the racial conflicts  we are experiencing today? Solly Two Kings’ words about the Civil War, similar to a line Aaron Sorkin put in his adaptation of To Kill A Mocking Bird: “We still settling it,” Solly Two Kings says of the Civil War. Rutherford Selig, a white peddler who is a friend and fixture around Esther’s family recounts overhearing a fellow white man say at a gathering of townspeople that he wants to reinstitute slavery. ” ‘Would you fight another war over it?,” Selig asks the man. “And he said, ‘Hell yeah.’ ”

The strength of Gem is that it does take us back to this time of betwixt and between slavery and freedom, when the Civil War was still fresh in the minds of older battle-worn former slaves and abolitionists. Solly keeps a few links of the chain that was once around his ankle as a “good luck piece.” It’s one thing to read about slavery in a history book, and another thing all together t hear the first-account stories of Solly and Eli about guiding Union soldiers through forests only they knew, and finding their way to Canada on the Underground Railroad.

Aunt Ester’s character, believed to be almost 300 years old, is Wilson’s way of telling us that the black experience is permanent. It won’t ever die off. When we have a steady stream of reports of police brutality disproportionate to cause and population in 2023, it seems like the playwright was prophetic as he wrote the play during the early days of the 21st century.

Directed by John Sloan III, Gem’s cast is superb in delivering Wilson’s story. Madelyn Porter is so versatile in the range of parts she can play, but she really excels in the role of respected matriarch. Jon Kent is spot on in his brooding, confused character. Dominique Bird brings a strange quality to Black Mary that is hard to pin down. At times she feels almost as if she has a developmental disability, but it is closer to something more spiritual. David W. Skillman’s Solly seems to be made of gristle, the tough stuff that they hardly make any more. He was a slave, and living free but oppressed by the people around him. He knows how to make a life out of almost nothing in terms of money or assets. Wilson gave him a significant limp that is serious enough that you wonder if he’ll be able to walk much longer. But his metal is such that you don’t doubt he could defeat a man half his age.

There is a spiritual musical backdrop, composed and directed by Brian E. Buckner that is essential to the delivery of the story, with singing and clapping that denotes a range of emotion from joy to deep sadness.

Gem of the Ocean plays through March 5. Don’t miss it.

Week of 6/17/2024

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