Let's play a numbers game. August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean
is set in 1904. Aunt Ester, the wise old history-keeper referenced throughout Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, resides at 1839 Wylie
Avenue. She is 285 years old. That means Aunt Ester was born in 1619, the year a Dutch slaver bartered African slaves for essential goods in New England, effectively beginning the North American slave trade. 1839 is an important number too because it's the year the Slave ship Amistad was overtaken by slaves who would eventually win their freedom. You don't need to know this to follow Wilson's narratively-challenged play. But for maximum enjoyment it helps to know that Wilson wrote Gem of the Ocean like he thought Dan Brown might some day write The August Code
. There are games afoot.
1839 Wylie Street is a "peaceful house," a sanctuary for troubled souls, and a stand-in for the Amistad, where seekers like Citizen and Black Mary can shake off the chains of the past and become masters of their own fate. August Wilson's metaphor-rich problem play is many things including a meditation on the meaning of family in the midst of and ever-expanding diaspora. The people living in Aunt Ester's house aren't family, but they function like one. The only blood relatives on stage are Black Mary and her brother Caesar who wears a badge and has become an enforcer for white interests.
They don't get along for obvious reasons.
Gem of the Ocean
is a messy problem of a play — quilt-like assemblage of aria-like like speeches, and flights of imagination. It's a frustrating, but essential mix of the playwright's most striking imagery and spiritual nonsense-speak. It opens at the Hattloo Theatre this weekend.