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Gem of the Ocean

Standing in the Light

This complex, mystical, and powerful work is the ninth in August Wilson's ten play cycle about the twentieth century African-American experience. Gem of the Ocean's setting, Pittsburgh in 1904, is the earliest chronologically; it introduces characters referred to in the cycle's plays set in later decades. It paints a vivid historical picture of life in the post-Emancipation North that's as full of pain, joy, humor, and resonance as it is devoid of sentimentality, sanctimoniousness, or prejudice.

History (especially the history of shameful, catastrophic events) seems to operate under a strange rule -- the real truth can be safely told only when the ones who stand to lose most from the telling are all dead. A search for truth was clearly on Wilson's mind in this play. He found it fascinating that in 1904, you could still find many people who had actually been slaves.

Two of the characters in "Gem" are former slaves: Solly Two Kings (Steven Anthony Jones), who carries a link from his former leg chain as a talisman, and Aunt Esther (played to mesmerizing effect by Michele Shay), age somewhere between 285 and 349 (depending on who you ask). Her bill of sale as a slave gives the play its title and is central to the play's main scene of spiritual transformation -- she turns it into a tiny paper boat that symbolizes the ship "Gem of the Ocean".

"Gem" begins when Citizen, played by Owiso Odera, shows up at the house of Aunt Esther seeking sanctuary and redemption for a troublesome crime. Aunt Esther's housemates, Eli (Chuck Patterson) and Black Mary (Roslyn Ruff) try to rebuff the earnest and anxious young man, but Aunt Esther welcomes him with open arms, declaring his resemblance to a favorite lost son, her "June Bug".

He's also welcomed into the fold by Solly, an itinerant preacher, former Underground Railroad operative, and Mr. Selig (Raynor Scheine), a sympathetic white dry goods salesman. But he's warned and threatened by Caesar, the self-righteous prisoner turned cop and brother of Black Mary.

The matriarchal Aunt Esther is seen by Wilson as the central character of the cycle, and she is at the center of "Gem". In her mellifluous Southern drawl, both laid-back and breathless, she squeezes five or ten queries, commands, observations, or cooing indulgences into a single sentence.

Meanwhile, Caesar is a simpering, sauntering martinet with fastidious sartorial proclivities and a serious chip on his shoulder. Superbly delivered by Gregory Wallace, he dominates the stage, barking out his lines with imperious, withering force. He's a Snidely Whiplash of a villian if there ever was one. But he's also the most tragic character, and Wilson's genius allows us to feel even his pain as he tells his story of rags to riches. His passionate diatribes about rule-of-law eerily recall our daily news on the Iraq war.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson is a veteran of several Wilson plays -- he originated the role of Caesar in the Broadway production of "Gem" and received a 1996 Tony Award for his performance in Wilson's "Seven Guitars". He made his directorial debut with "Gem" earlier this season at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre. This A.C.T. production is the first major Bay Area production of Wilson's work since his death last October.

"Gem's characters are well balanced, the performances are compelling, the direction tight and inspired, and the story, while a bit lengthy and problematic in places, shows a masterful structure, development, and resolution. The use of language and the cadence of the speech, both in the script and the actors' delivery, are profoundly beautiful -- the effect is musical, even operatic.

"Gem of the Ocean" is an important and heroic work -- an illuminating and inspiring journey. As Aunt Esther says, "sooner or later everything and everybody gotta stand in the light."

Gem of the Ocean
at A.C.T.
Runs through March 12
Tickets: $16-$76