Gem is set in Pittsburgh in 1904. That's only about 40 years after the end of the Civil War, and some of the characters experienced slavery firsthand.
The free black community is struggling to adjust to a new reality. To a large extent, new forms of "semi-slavery" have taken hold, even in the North. At a Pittsburgh mill, for instance, the workers get underpaid and overcharged, so that they are continually in debt.
The drama takes place in the home of Aunt Ester (Adella Gautier), who is a healer and spiritual leader. At one point, she shows a deed of sale in which she herself was the purchase. The other household members are her assistant and helper Black Mary (Coti Gayles) and Eli (Wilbert Williams).
The play begins at night. Eli is just blowing out the candles when there's a pounding at the door. Eli opens to Citizen Barlow (Donald Lewis), a desperate young man who demands to see Aunt Ester so that she can "wash his soul." He's told to come back on Tuesday, but instead of going away, he waits across the street all night. Eventually, he climbs in through a window so he can approach her.
Here, we enter a vortex that seems to pull everyone down towards an inescapable disaster, or rather -- and this is a bit of a hair-raiser -- toward the City of Bones.
In fact, the disaster has already been set in motion, and Gem follows the consequences. A man accused of stealing a bucket of nails claimed innocence. Rather than face a 30-day jail sentence, he jumped into a river and drowned. Early on, we intuit that Citizen's agony is connected to that bucket of nails. If he was the one who stole it, what a weight of guilt he is carrying.
Another character in this oppressed world is Solly Two Kings (Harold Evans). He was a slave, escaped to Canada in 1857, but went back South to help others escape via the Underground Railroad. Now, he's cobbling together a living of sorts by collecting "pure" (dog droppings) and selling them as fertilizer or cures or something of the sort. But the streak of rebelliousness and concern for others that he showed as a young man reemerge later in the story. Rutherford Selig (Charles Bosworth), the only white man in the group, is a traveling merchant and a friend of the family.
Finally, there's Caesar Wilks (Escalante Lundy), the villain of the piece. The social order is run by whites who profit from the mill where the blacks work. But Caesar (who is black) was appointed deputy sheriff and given a star and a gun with the understanding that he would protect the white people's property and keep black folks in line. He's one tough customer and more full of self-serving platitudes about law and order than a district attorney on a TV crime show.
Under Anthony Bean's direction, the cast does a uniformly good job. They give us a fascinating glimpse of African Americans trying to get their bearings in a confusing, difficult new order called freedom, but that's not quite as shining as the name seems to imply. The realistic set by John Grimsley and Matt Borel is effective as is the lighting by Lyn Caliva and costume design by Diana Shortes.
While Citizen tries to get his soul washed, the world around him plunges into chaos. There's a riot at the mill. Finally, the mill is torched. Where will it all end? How much of this tumult is a result of the man drowning -- and therefore, of Citizen's guilt?
Speaking of that guilt, hold onto your seats, ladies and gents. Aunt Ester decides to wash Citizen's soul. To do so, she takes him on a voyage into the beyond. Does that beyond have roots in the rain forests of Africa? Did it spring up here, out of the imagination of an enslaved people? Or in the mind of a lone playwright? I have no idea.
But Citizen is transported by means of a voodoo-like ceremony to the City of Bones. He is barred from entering by the guardian, who turns out to be the drowned man. When Citizen confesses that he is the one who stole the nails, the drowned man lets him in. Citizen's guilt is removed.
But further tragedy, which I won't disclose, is waiting to strike.
However, there's one final hint of hope, when Citizen picks up the symbolic walking stick of the slain Two Kings.
- In August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester (Adella Gautier) and Solly Two Kings (Harold Evans) have survived slavery and are working to escape its legacy in turn-of-the- century Pittsburgh.