Black history is continually under attack, even during Black History Month. Some jurisdictions and politicians actively ban books and programs that even mention the original sin of slavery in the United States. Playwright August Wilson’s work chronicled the story of black life and the impact of systemic racism in his Century Cycle, ten plays set in his hometown of Pittsburgh during each decade of the 20th century.
ocean gem was written in 2003 and is set in 1904 in the working-class Hill District, where 285-year-old Ester Tyler (Lisa Gaye Dixon) lives with her helper and protege Black Mary (Sydney Charles) and Eli (AC Smith, reprising that role from the 2015 Court Theater production). At Ester’s house, the trio interact with Eli’s friend and Ester flirt, Solly Two Kings (James A. Williams), a former Underground Railroad conductor, aging tin go-goer Rutherford Selig (Gary Houston ) and troubled young man Citizen Barlow (Sharif Atkins).
Pittsburgh is in turmoil due to the recent theft of a bucket of nails from the city’s mill and the resulting death during the chase. Mary’s brother, Caesar (Kelvin Roston Jr.) is the power-hungry policeman harassing everyone about this crime and more. Under the direction of Chuck Smith, Eli begins production by cleaning his gun, so the violence to follow is inescapable. The blue timbers of the set, designed by Linda Buchanan, are interspersed with spaces of equal size as they disappear into the rafters, also supporting the theme of tenuous and murky architecture in these lives.
Biblical references also spice up the plot, from Christian names to Citizen’s quest to have his “soul washed” by Aunt Ester, to the stone wall Eli and Citizen build in the yard, using of stones supplied by Selig. Caesar’s trumpeted threats are aimed at overthrowing this protection.
The sexual tension also seeps in, as Citizen mocks Mary, to which she rebuts, “You have a woman on your hands.” What are you going to do now?” Women and women’s work anchor this male-dominated dynamic as women nurture and heal, tear and then mend, aid and abet their fellow man. Ester helps Citizen navigate his redemption through using a map made up of a Gullah-like quilt, all decades away from the Civil War, and postage papers.
As Civil War 2.0 heats up in the real world, Wilson’s artful dissection of the causes of personal and racial animosity, delivered by this empathetic and cohesive cast, continues to cross the waters of time.
* * *
Wilson’s Century Cycle parts, all of which were produced at the Goodman, also include Come and Gone by Joe Turner (set in 1911, written in 1984), Ma Rainey’s Black Low (set in 1927, written in 1982), The piano lesson (set in 1936, written in 1986), seven guitars (set in 1948, written in 1995 with a world premiere by Goodman), Fences (set in 1957, written in 1983), Two trains in motion (set in 1969, written in 1990), Jitney (set in 1977, written in 1979), King Hedley II (set in 1985, written in 1999), and Radio Golf (set in 1997, written in 2005).
ocean gem runs through Feb. 27 at the Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $25 to $80 and are available online or at 312-443-3800. Covid protocols are in place: all guests must provide proof of vaccination. Masks are required at all times in the theater and patrons under 5 are not permitted.
Did you enjoy this article and our coverage of the Chicago art scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by make a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you and know how much we appreciate your support!