Aunt Ester’s house is a place of peace and sanctuary, but that peace does not last long in Gem of the Ocean. Eli (A.C. Smith) opens the door to a distressed stranger at the beginning of the first act, and when the stranger refuses to leave and return on Tuesday as instructed, he barges through the threshold and a struggle ensues. And thus, in the middle of these two wrestling men, does Aunt Ester enter.
Aunt Ester (Jacqueline Williams) is the most powerful character on the stage despite her limping 275-year-old body. With a stern but understanding look, Aunt Ester tells the stranger to stop his struggle and return on Tuesday. And with that, she limps back to bed as the two men and the audience alike stare in a trance.
Gem of the Ocean is the chronological first play (but the ninth play produced) in August Wilson’s Century Cycle. Set 41 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the most powerful scenes involve narratives connected to slavery. Solly Two Kings (Alfred H. Wilson) and Eli share stories of their roles as Underground Railroad conductors with Citizen Barlow (Jerod Haynes). Citizen is a younger man, experienced in the oppression of a South. When he states that his recent employment was as bad as slavery, Solly Two Kings corrects him: “Nothing is as bad as slavery.”
Court Theater’s production wisely revolves around the critical City of Bones scene. Aunt Ester aids Citizen in cleansing his terrible sins via a hypnotic trance that transports Citizen down the ocean into the city created from bones of those who did not survive the Middle Passage. Through lighting, sound, spoken words, and song, director Ron OJ Parson allows his audience to experience the scene both from inside Citizen’s mind and from beyond the fourth wall as Aunt Ester creates this world for Citizen.
While William’s Aunt Ester anchors the show, her performance is matched word-for-word by David Alan Anderson’s Caesar Wilks, the show’s antagonist. Wilks is the local constable, who has forsaken his African-American roots and now strives to fulfill his duty with a vigor that is reminiscent of Les Miserables’ Javert. His main task is to maintain order at a local mill despite boiling tensions among the workers relating to working conditions and the recent death by drowning of an employee wrongly accused of the crime of stealing a bucket of nails. Wilson delivers on the promise of a confrontation between Aunt Ester and Caesar Wilks in the second act when Wilks serves Aunt Ester with an arrest warrant for abetting a criminal. Aunt Ester’s response, which involves a haunting allusion to her own bill of sale, proves that morality can overcome immorality even in a time of rampant persecution.
The Goodman Theater led a recent celebration of Wilson’s work centered on their March-April production of Two Trains Running, and Gem of the Ocean is a perfect follow-up. While the most prominent Chicago theaters focus primarily on new works, these two productions create hope that more theaters will ensure that the remaining eight plays of the August Wilson’s Century Cycle will find revivals in Chicago soon.