All too often, August Wilson is termed a great African-American playwright. That’s foolishness. Go see Gem of the Ocean at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) and tell me if you can think of a better script by any American playwright, one with more poetry, emotion or affecting characters.
When I saw Gem, created by the late Wilson to lay the foundation for his 10-play “century cycle” chronicling African-American life during the decades of the 20th century, in its Chicago premiere in 2003, it was sprawling and diffuse.
The play’s final script, as presented at ETC, is much tighter, with a great arc of personal stories featuring people who will fascinate and move local audiences. Ron “OJ” Parsons, who directed Wilson’s Radio Golf last season for ETC, returns with another fine ensemble cast.
[See my interview with Parsons here.]
Gem is more of a history piece (set in 1904 with characters who remember slavery and the Civil War) than Radio Golf (about urban blight and redevelopment in 1997). Parsons’ players capture the essence of these colorful people, from legendary Aunt Ester (powerful Cheryl Lynn Bruce), whose presence hovers over many of Wilson’s plays, to young Citizen Barlow (anxious Ronald L. Conner), come north from Alabama to find work and a new life but victimized by bad judgment that necessitates a “cleansing” of his soul.
Gem is populated with characters whose descendants appear in other Wilson plays — arrogant law officer Caesar Wilks (commanding Morocco Omari), Aunt Ester’s proud helper Black Mary (Charlette Speigner) and Barlow are the ancestors of people we met a year ago in Radio Golf. Alfred H. Wilson (who played Elder Joseph Barlow last year) plays the iconic Solly Two Kings, a one-time Underground Railroad conductor whose pride in his race ultimately inspires young Barlow to follow his example.
ETC is doing Cincinnati a great favor by presenting Wilson’s magnificent plays. This one is not to be missed if you care about good theater.
GEM OF THE OCEAN, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 22. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.