Gem of the Ocean at Pittsburgh Playwrights | Program Notes

Gem of the Ocean at Pittsburgh Playwrights

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It's the last week to catch this fine production of one of the best of the ten plays in August Wilson's so-called Pittsburgh Cycle.

The work is notable because, although it was one of the late Wilson's final plays to debut, it's chronologically where the Cycle begins: in 1904, in a house on Wylie Avenue, in the Hill District. 

Like every other Wilson play, it's set in a single space, with no set changes. But in the Pittsburgh-born playwright's grand vision, Gem nonetheless seems to encompass the whole of the African-American experience to the date of its setting. Several characters are ex-slaves, for instance, and two of them are old Underground Railroad hands, stories about which experience powerfully underpin a few scenes.

Most striking, however, is the appearance of Wilson's most iconic character, Aunt Ester — a 200-plus-year-old former slave who's now a wise woman and washer of souls." Her presence in the Hill is discussed throughout the Cycle, but I'm pretty sure Gem is the only time she appears on stage. She's embodied here in a memorable performance by Chrystal Bates, who manages to make Ester earthy and uncanny at the same time.

Meanwhile, among very much else, in Gem Wilson offers a riveting dramatization of what the law means, and is worth. The play's signal incident, which occurs offstage, is the death of a tin-mill worker who drowns in the river fleeing lawmen who would take his freedom on the unsubstantiated charge he stole a bucket of nails.

The play's climax involves a bit of anarchistic justice-serving. And it's no coincidence that the chief antagonist is Cesar Wilkes, who's one of Wilson's best heavies and also a lawman who can abide no rule-breaking, even for a greater good.

Here's Ted Hoover's review of the show for CP.

Playwrights is the most dedicated interpreter of Wilson's work in town, staging a different installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle each year for the past nine. The troupe, under artistic director Mark Clayton Southers, is also arguably the best producer of Wilson's work in town. 

This production, directed by Southers, also stars Jonathan Berry, Kevin Brown, David Crawford, Kim El, Alan Bomar Jones and Wali Jamal.

There are four more shows at Playwrights' Downtown space, at 8 p.m. Thu., June 21; 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., June 23; and 3 p.m. Sun., June 24.

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