- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Devotees of playwright August Wilson’s decade-by-decade depiction of struggle and emerging identity among 20th-century black Americans have been itching for Aunt Ester to come out from the wings ever since she was first mentioned in 1992’s “Two Trains Running.” Aunt Ester — a spiritual matriarch in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood who is older than slavery and, as a Colonial bill of sale indicates, older than America itself — is also evoked in Mr. Wilson’s plays “Seven Guitars,” “King Hedley II” and “Radio Golf.” She finally appears, 285 years old and in the vibrant flesh, in “Gem of the Ocean,” which is receiving its local premiere at Arena Stage under the clear-cut direction of the United Kingdom’s Paulette Randall.

As portrayed with guile and ancient grace by Lynnie Godfrey, she is both symbolic and substantial. Aunt Ester may embody the memory and terrible history of all the African people who endured the Middle Passage, but she also is crafty and not above a teaching joke at someone else’s expense. Her body is stooped, but life and vigor flow from her hands, which move like the branches of a sapling. Proving that life begins at 250, Aunt Ester even has a suitor, Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell), a former conductor for the Underground Railroad who appreciates women the way a wine connoisseur savors a glass of Petrus.

Although written in 2004, “Gem of the Ocean” is set in 1904, when former slaves grappled with a jagged definition of freedom and those too young to remember bondage faced a new century of industrial opportunity in the urban North and institutionalized, internal racism and oppression. The 20th century literally comes banging on Aunt Ester’s door at 1839 Wylie Avenue when young Citizen Barlow (Jimonn Cole) arrives from Alabama, still wearing his clodhopper boots and demanding to have his soul cleansed after committing a desperate act.

Aunt Ester is happy to oblige, taking Citizen Barlow on a metaphysical journey in the second act using nothing but a slave quilt and a paper boat she folds out of her bill of sale. In the harrowing, ritualistic scene — beautifully enhanced by Timothy M. Thompson’s creaking, windswept, seafaring sound effects and Allen Lee Hughes’ hallucinatory lighting design — Aunt Ester and Citizen set sail in a slave ship for the City of Bones, a glorious graveyard kingdom made of the skeletal remains of those who drowned on the way to America.

You would think something as grand and frequently melodramatic as “Gem” would cry out for the vast stage of the Fichandler, but much of the play’s tension dissipates as the actors struggle with voice projection and navigating a kitchen-parlor setting that often seems about as intimate as Dulles airport.

The cast has a hard time establishing the fluid rhythms of the long-standing, almost historic relationships that are so essential to Mr. Wilson’s work; if you can’t find the music, all that’s left is a lot of gusty speeches. The fact that many lines were fluffed on opening night made the interactions even more estranged. However, the calm dignity of Clayton LeBouef’s Eli, Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper, and Mr. Cole’s voracious energy as Citizen Barlow filled up the space commendably.

Mr. Wilson’s plays center largely on the camaraderie of men, the sprawling back-and-forth conversations, the bravado and the rivalries that sputter and flame with the rhythms of blues and jazz.

Like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Gem” is a powerful exception and possesses an epic cadence, like the call-and-response of a hymn. The presence of Aunt Ester and her stiff-backed protege Black Mary (Pascale Armand in a performance that builds) creates a world as insular and womanly as the womb. In this cushioned realm, someone such as Black Mary’s brother Caesar (a grandiose and prickly LeLand Gantt), who takes his responsibility as town constable to cruel extremes, sticks out like a knife point.

For all the production’s missteps, what prevails is Mr. Wilson’s abiding humanism and lyricism — and, of course, his most evocative creation, Aunt Ester. Like any great lady, she is well worth the wait.


WHAT: “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 18.

TICKETS: $46 to $66


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