The late August Wilson once said that all his plays boil down to one short story called “The Best Blues Singer in the World,” which is told in one sentence: “The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.” But how does a drowning man sing, I wonder?
“Gem of the Ocean is all about the water,” Director James O’Neil told me by phone last week. The prospect of directing an August Wilson play is undoubtedly, well, august. The playwright’s credentials include two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award; a theater in New York City and a cultural center in Pittsburgh each bear his name. The American literary canon embraces his “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, which illustrates the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. What’s more, the well-read Wilson packed his plays with mythic references not only from the Bible but from Africa and even Russian fairy tales.
And yet, while O’Neil acknowledges the depth and complexity of Gem of the Ocean (2004), he also insists on the immediate accessibility of the piece. It is simply good theater. Tension and ambiguity at the conclusion of nearly every act and scene keep the pace moving and the audience guessing. “I was at the edge of my seat,” O’Neil recalled when first seeing the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival five years ago.
Gem takes place in 1904, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District amid labor tensions and riots. Citizen Barlow (Keith Arthur Bolden) comes into town burdened with guilt over a past misdeed, and enlists the help of Aunt Ester (Tony Award winner Lillias White) to seek absolution. Ester is a mystical presence in the play, a 285-year-old “washer of souls” who is a custodian of the memory and wisdom of her people. She alone can help Citizen see the causes that condemn him, and the passage to liberation. To do this Ester sends him on a spiritual journey aboard the legendary slave ship Gem of the Ocean to the mythical City of Bones.
And that’s where the play enters deep water, O’Neil told me. “I’ll talk about the fire, and I’ll talk about the land,” Aunt Ester says, “but I won’t talk about the water.” At the historical level, the water refers to the Middle Passage of the slave trade, and to the fatal choice to jump ship rather than submit. But water also is a symbol for the subconscious mind in Jungian analysis and mythology. “If you’re worthy to go down there, you’ll come up refreshed and ready for a new challenge; if you’re not worthy, you might drown.”
The blues is all about endurance in the face of such dire uncertainties, and this Rubicon production sings. Two of the songs are traditional, but Wilson provided only lyrics for the others. Fortunately, the Rubicon creative team includes composer Kevin Toney, who brings those words to life. In addition to White and Bolden, this award-winning cast features Anthony J. Haney as Solly Two Kings, Chris Butler as Caesar Wilks, Pamela Shaddock as Black Mary, and Tom Mueller as Rutherford Selig. Wilson strove to bridge the specific and the universal in his plays, and O’Neil insists that Gem has a heartfelt message about self-forgiveness that applies to anyone who struggles with regret. “Somehow you’ve got to move forward; you’ve got to put it in its place and continue to live your life,” he told me. “You’ve got to live what is remaining of your life in freedom and in joy — it’s got to be as good as you can make it.”
Gem of the Ocean runs now through Sunday, June 10, at the Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). Call 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org for tickets and showtimes.