Let's play with numbers. Gem is set in 1904. Aunt Ester, a wise old history-keeper who resides at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill district is 285 years old. That means she was born in 1619, the year a Dutch slaver bartered African slaves for essential goods in New England, effectively beginning the North American slave trade. 1839 is an important number because it's the year the Slave ship Amistad was overtaken by slaves who would eventually win their freedom. You don't need to know this to follow Wilson's narratively-challenged play. But for maximum enjoyment it helps to know that games are afoot.
1839 Wylie Street is a "peaceful house," a sanctuary for troubled souls, and a stand-in for the Amistad, where seekers like Citizen and Black Mary can shake off the chains of the past and become masters of their own fate. Or something like that.
August Wilson's problem play is many things including a meditation on the meaning of family in the ever-evolving diaspora. The people living in Aunt Ester's house aren't family, but they function like one. The only blood relatives on stage are Black Mary and her brother Caesar who wears a badge and has become an enforcer for white interests. They don't get along for obvious reasons.
"Some of these niggers were better off in slavery," Caesar growls, raging against mill workers who walked off the job after a fellow laborer drown in the river where he took refuge after being falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails. Caeser, who values blood obligations but is selfish and can't identify with his own race refuses to understand why his sister would rather be a washwoman in a poor community than work with him in comfortable isolation as a part of the exploitative system.
Gem has problems. As other critics have pointed out there's a fine line between the language of spirituality and complete nonsense. The play's pivotal scene, in which Aunt Ester leads young Citizen on a spiritual cruise to a mythical City of Bones, sounds like it could have been plagiarized from a self-hypnosis lecture aimed at helping people lose weight: "Imagine yourself on a boat...".
Playhouse's production is inviting enough but it's also shapeless and too sanitary. The characters may wear rags, gather crap, work in mills, ride horses, peddle cookware in the dirty streets, brawl, and bleed but there's no real evidence that Ester's spacious home has ever been lived in. The labor and class disputes raging just off stage—a powerful image in these uneasy times— never feel especially real even in the play's chaotic closing scenes.
Tony Horne, a detail-oriented director who took home an Ostrander Award last season for his work on The Wiz, gets some fantastic performances from a strong cast that includes Lazora Jones as Aunt Ester, Rozelle Henderson as Caesar, Morgan Malone as Black Mary, and Emmanuel McKinney as Citizen, a young man with a secret that weighs heavily on his soul. Stage vet Jamie Mann gives one of his better performances as Solly Two-Kings, a former Union scout and hero of the underground railroad who makes his living collecting dog excrement for fertilizer. But Wilson's script makes it easy for individual performances and pieces of the story to stand out in a play that wants to be too many things at once.
Problems aside it's not likely that Gem of the Ocean will be revived soon and Wilson fans will want to see it before it goes away.