"Gem of the Ocean
Indiana Repertory Theatre
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Through Feb. 10
August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is the ninth in his 10-play cycle exploring the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, during the 20th century. Chronologically, this is the first in the series, being set in 1904, a time when black men and women were still struggling with their relatively newfound freedom. (The rest of the series includes, in order of the decade in which they are set, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; The Piano Lesson; Seven Guitars; Fences; Two Trains Running; Jitney; King Hedley II; and Radio Golf).
Set in Wilson’s Hill District in Pittsburgh, Penn., the play combines harsh realities with harsher mystical experiences, taking its characters back to slave times to reinforce the fact that, though times are tough, they are still better than they were. This happens via Aunt Ester, a wise woman who claims to be 285. She carries the plight of the African slave times within her, and now works as a “washer of souls.” When Citizen Barlow comes to her looking to cleanse himself of a recent crime, the journey begins.
While the play deals with the intense subject matter of slavery, set less than 50 years after its abolition, it is also imbued with humor through the interaction of such characters as quirky Ester, solemn Black Mary, jovial Solly Two Kings, protective Eli and more.
Indiana Repertory Theatre’s cast, under the direction of Timothy Douglas, is outstanding. Lizan Mitchell as Aunt Ester combines the frailty of an old woman with the strength of wisdom. Chris Chalk as Citizen depicts the fear and confusion of a man trapped by the system. David Alan Anderson is that system in his character Caesar Wilks, a black man who fought his way into a position of power and now guards it to the exclusion of his fellow black men. Ernest Perry Jr. as Solly is dedicated to the enjoyment of life but willing to sacrifice for people who still suffer under oppression.
As always, the IRT’s sets, costumes and lighting are the best there is.
The show is three hours long, and it feels it, so be prepared.
With Wilson’s death in October 2005, Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre was named in his honor — the first theater to be named after an African-American.
Gem of the Ocean continues through Feb. 10 at the IRT downtown. Tickets begin at $34. Call 317-635-5252 or go to www.irtlive.com.