Gem of the Ocean -- A Spiritual Awakening

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

Besides other discoveries about such things as guilt, duty and redemption, one thing you can be certain when you go see an August Wilson play is that you will get your money’s worth. In the case of  Gem of the Ocean now at Hartford Stage Company the three hours you spend with Wilson will be more than fulfilling.

Gem of the Ocean is the next to last play, although the first installment, of Wilson’s decade-by-decade, 10-play chronicle, The Pittsburgh Cycle, dramatizing the African-American experience in the 20th century.

The play is set in 1904 at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill District, the locale for most all of the plays, during a strike at the steel mill where most of the people work. Aunt Ester, played here by the stately Novella Nelson, the drama's 285-year-old fiery matriarch, welcomes into her home the determined Solly Two Kings, (Roger Robinson), who was born into slavery and scouted for the Union Army, and  the naive Citizen Barlow, (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a young man fleeing from Alabama and searching for a new life. Citizen Barlow is in search of redemption. Aunt Ester is not too old to practice healing; she guides him on a soaring, lyrical journey of spiritual awakening to the City of Bones in the second act.

You will be totally caught up in the staging of his journey as director Hana S. Sharif  with scenic designer Scott Bradley virtually explode the stage and take Barlow on a fantastic voyage to the mythical City of Bones. But before we can view this dramatic scene Wilson peoples Aunt Ester’s home with several characters including her protector Eli (Ernest Perry Jr.), a house keeper, Black Mary (perfectly captured by the talented Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Rutherford Selig, a white house wares peddler (Christopher McHale), and Caesar, Black Mary’s brother and a law enforcement officer carefully developed by Ray Anthony Thomas. Thomas does a brilliant job bringing out Caesar’s logical points of view that might remind you of Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Against this backdrop Aunt Ester launches Citizen on a spiritual journey aboard the legendary slave ship, Gem of the Ocean, to the mythical City of Bones. There, Citizen comes to understand the story of his ancestors and faces the truth about his crime and the man he wronged.

What makes the staging of Barlow’s journey so effective is the general realism of Scott Bradley’s setting that captures the quality of  a pleasant home in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the early 20th century.

1904 is less than four decades from the Civil War and the end of slavery so that aspect  hangs heavily in the atmosphere. Also the title of the play – used as the name of the ship that Barlow takes on his mystical journey to the City of Bones – reflects a popular song that was written in 1843 by  T. Becket and D. Shaw during the Lincoln years, and was usually included among the patriotic songs played by the Marine Band for the President's ceremonial gatherings.

Gem of the Ocean is a theatrical experience that should not be missed.
Wilson completed the last play in the 10-play cycle, Radio Golf, depicting the black experience in the last decade of the 20th century, only months before he died of cancer at the age of 60 in 2005.

Gem of the Ocean is at Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St., through June 5. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-527-5151 or online at

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers June 1, 2011 and online at



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