Gem Of The Ocean – theatre review

Players By The Sea (PBTS) opened its second show of the 2010-2011 seasons with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. It will run until November 20 at 106 Sixth Street North, Jacksonville Beach. Also of note for patrons attending on Thursdays, barbecue will be available, courtesy of production partner Jenkins Quality Barbecue. Call 249-0289 or visit for reservations.
The late August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays, known as The Century Cycle that is set in successive decades of the twentieth century and deals with the experiences of African-Americans. Nine of the plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Wilson lived for much of his early life; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the exception and is set in Chicago.
Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904, forty years after the end of civil war. The aftermath of slavery is a continuing concern; while the African-American mill workers of the Hill District are legally free, they are subject to political and economic exploitation and their relatives who remain in the South are experiencing even worse conditions.
All the action takes place in the home of Aunt Ester (Antoinette Johnson). The set by Joe Schwarz is spacious, realistic, and detailed, with rose-colored walls, wooden plank flooring, and wooden tables, chairs, and benches. Period details include a stained glass transom and oil lamps.
The lighting design by Jim Wiggins recreated the lighting of the era, before electricity was widely available, and later transformed the stage into a mystical setting beneath the sea.
Aunt Ester (Antoinette Johnson) claims to be almost 300 years old, perhaps as an embodiment of history and tradition, rather than literally, and has the ability to cleanse souls. She shares her home with Eli (James Bullock), a friend who owns the house and is also her caregiver and Black Mary (Christina May) her servant and heir apparent.
Citizen Barlow, played by David Girard, has committed a crime and comes to the home wanting Aunt Ester’s assistance with absolution. At the same time, Solly Two Kings (Noble Lee Lester), a former slave and Aunt Ester’s suitor, is also visiting the home. He carries a walking stick with 62 notches, one for each slave he assisted to freedom during the time he worked with the underground railroad.
Black Mary’s brother, Caesar (Larry Knight) is a black law enforcement officer, who follows the legal code to the letter, evicts renters who miss even a single week of their rent, and brutally quells riots.
Seth Langner is the traveling peddler Selig, who frequently drops in and, although he is white, is sympathetic to the plight of the local African-Americans.
The estate of August Wilson is very restrictive about releasing production rights, and Players by the Sea spent several months securing the rights. Barbara Colaciello, Education Director at Players, cast and directed this play. Talk with her and you will see how passionately she appreciates the script and the characters Wilson created. Her dedication shows in the inspired performances by all the actors. In addition to the directing duties, Barbara designed the costumes. All appear will dressed for the most part, with long skirts and fitted jackets for the women, and long-sleeved shirts and vests for the men.
The personality of each character has been richly developed, with the hard and self-righteous attitude of Larry Knight as Caesar; the guilt ridden David Girard, as the repentant Citizen; the flamboyant Solly, by Nobel Lee Lester that provided much of the humor in the play; the spunky spirit of Christina May as Black Mary as she stands up to both her brother and Aunt Ester, Seth Langner as the helpful peddler Selig, James Bullock as the protective Eli, and newcomer Antoinette Johnson who is 28 years old, in an amazingly convincing performance as the truly ageless and deeply spiritual Aunt Ester.
The most remarkable scene occurs in Act II, when Citizen is led with others by Aunt Ester on a paper ship, Gem of the Ocean (hence the title), to the City of the Bones under the sea, built on the remains of slaves who died during the transatlantic crossing; it is here that Citizen finds absolution and the strength to continue with his new life.
This is a remarkable piece of theatre that is not to be missed. Both ends of the stage are used extensively, so it is wise to select a seat in the center if possible. (The seating is general seating, so get there early). We don’t recommend it for small children. The production runs three hours, with the intermission.
We have seen two other plays by August Wilson on local stages: Fences” and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; let’s hope for future productions of Jitney, King Headley II”, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.