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Gem of the Ocean

Gem may be the richest of all Wilson's plays

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August Wilson found Pittsburgh a lot more interesting than I do. The writer created a 10-play series called "The Pittsburgh Cycle," nine of which are set in Pittsburgh. If I wrote 10 plays about Pittsburgh, they'd all be set in the Giant Eagle lottery line, where the characters never shut up about the Steelers.

But Wilson was a visionary. He won just about every theater award imaginable and is the first, and only, African American to have a Broadway theater named after him.

A late entry in his canon was 2004's Gem of the Ocean. Set in 1904, the play was Wilson's penultimate Cycle entry. We're in the home of Aunt Ester, a "washer of souls." Her services are called upon by Citizen Barlow, a young man in need of spiritual surcease.

Gem may be the richest of all Wilson's plays; it's a profoundly "interior" work, with Wilson examining the intersection of history's pull of memory and its imperative for forward momentum.

The first production I saw, a few years back, left me with more questions than answers. So I was looking forward to the new production by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., which in presenting the entire cycle over the years has brought clarity and immediacy to all the scripts.

But I can't say I left with my questions answered. Director Mark Clayton Southers and a cast of astonishing actors seem to be as gobsmacked by the play as I am. A too-studied pace and an accentuation of the work's melodrama limit its range.

And Southers has tilted the focus toward the character of Solly — no wonder, given the luminous performance of Alan Bomar Jones. I can't help but feel, however, that the play is about Aunt Ester and Black Mary, here played with intelligence and strength by Chrystal Bates and Kim El. Kevin Brown, Jonathan Berry, Wali Jamal and David Crawford also provide powerful performances.

The thing is, I could be wrong ... perhaps Solly is the focus. Perhaps the play I think this is, in fact is something else. Perhaps Gem of the Ocean is so vast it'll take years before we can gauge its scope. I do know I'm looking forward to continued study.

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