Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson is best known for his Century Cycle, a collection of 10 stories, each one set in a different decade of the 20th Century, that look at the lives of Black Americans and their struggles in a callous and unjust world.
Gem of the Ocean, which is currently onstage at Portland Center Stage, is the first of these stories chronologically, setting its action in 1904 and introducing audiences to Aunt Ester Tyler, a shamanistic woman who acts as a spiritual advisor to misguided Blacks who need to get their souls clean. However, absolution doesn’t come easy, as one particular young traveler soon learns.
As Gem begins, Ester (Treasure Lunan) lives at 1839 Wiley Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District with her caregiver Eli (Victor Mack) and her protégé Black Mary (Andrea Vernae). When disgruntled mill worker Citizen Barlow (Henry Noble) arrives at her home, Ester, surprisingly, allows him in, promising to give the divine cleansing Citizen thinks he desperately needs (but not in the way he expects).
Gem of the Ocean sets itself apart from other plays in the Century Cycle by indulging in magical realism. Aunt Ester claims to be 285-years-old and remembers coming to America on slave ships. Her wisdom is a mix of African ritual and Biblical allegory that’s just insightful enough to make the audience wonder how much of it is true.
The production wisely plays into the polysemy of the story—Ester’s home is a ramshackle old house, but it creaks and groans like a ship at sea. Citizen’s vision quest in the second half might be a genuine spiritual experience or simply the result of a wily old woman’s theatricality.
Lunan leans into the ambiguity, giving a performance that pays off tremendously. They imbue Ester with both wisdom and a cackling sense of humor that leaves the audience unsure of her powers, but grateful to see her onstage nonetheless.
Of course, Gem isn’t without its more grounded, serious elements. The backdrop of the story is growing tensions between the resentful employees of a local tin mill and the wage-slavery practices of the mill’s owners. The two sides are represented by Solly Two Kings (WRICK Jones), a former Underground Railroad conductor who is sympathetic to the millers’ plight, and Caesar (Bobby Bermea), the local policeman who is Mary’s estranged brother.
Despite only appearing sporadically, Caesar is a surprisingly fascinating villain. He’s been able to advance and prosper in the immediate post-slavery age, but is unaware (or unwilling to admit) that he only succeeded by stepping on his fellow Blacks. His villainy is especially relevant given Portland’s recent clashes with law enforcement, serving as a reminder that what’s legal and what’s right don’t always intersect.
Caesar is unerringly devoted to upholding the law and makes no concessions, to the point where he shows no moral qualms about killing a suspect over a stolen loaf of bread. Even still, he wants desperately to maintain a relationship with his sister, ignoring how much she and everyone else despises him.
The cast is uniformly strong, but the one who ends up having to carry most of the play is Noble. Citizen is our everyman and our guide to Ester’s strange world. He has to reflect our curiosity and wonder at this maybe magical, maybe mundane matriarch, but never let his pain and desperation be forgotten.
Noble fulfills the play’s demands, radiating energy and never letting his journey be swept away in the chaos. At the same time, Jones ably brings Solly to life, giving the character a wry sense of humor and rebellious spirit, but also a sense of gravitas and seriousness when called upon.
By story’s end, Gem of the Ocean reminds the audience of the fact that while freedom is the ideal, it isn’t free—and that for Black Americans, that bill has yet to be paid. So long as exploitative capitalism, oppressive law enforcement, and erasure of Black history live, freedom is under threat, and it’s on all of us to remember our past, learn in the present, and apply those teachings to a more equitable, more just future.
SEE IT: Gem of the Ocean plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays, 2 pm select Thursdays. Schedule may vary for some shows. Tickets start at $25.