“Gem of the Ocean” is a voyage of discovery

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Crystal and Brandon are sitting on a bench talking to each other
Crystal and Brandon Gem of the Ocean
The cast is sitting at a wood table
James A. Williams Brian D. Coats Brandon J. Dirden Stephen Tyrone Williams Gem of the Ocean

Playwright August Wilson (1945-2005), in his “Century Cycle”, created a series of plays that painted, decade by decade, a portrait of African American life in the United States, focusing on the Black community of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Two River Theater in Red Bank has taken on the project of producing all ten of Wilson’s plays. They have mounted a production of Gem of the Ocean, the ninth play written but the first in chronological order, set in 1904. This production brings to life a community whose members are not that far removed from the days of slavery, but which is fracturing under the pressures of white authority and privilege.

The main character, Aunt Ester Tyler, is a healer and “soul cleanser” who claims to be 285 years old. In her house at 1839 Wiley Avenue — a location referenced in several more “Century Cycle” plays — she resides with her caregiver Eli and her housekeeper and apprentice Black Mary Wilks. Frequent visitors to the house are Solly Two Kings, a former Army scout and conductor on the Underground Railroad who courts Aunt Ester, and Rutherford Selig, an itinerant peddler of crockery, pots and pans, and rocks.

The death of a worker at the local steel mill has incited riots in the neighborhood, with the mill being set on fire. This brings Caesar Wilks, the town constable, and Black Mary’s brother, to the house. He flaunts his authority and “requests” the household to inform him of the whereabouts of a suspect, Citizen Barlow, a recent arrival from the South, should they see him.  Barlow, who has come to Aunt Ester seeking absolution for a crime, is sent by her on a harrowing spiritual voyage on the Gem of the Ocean, a notorious slave ship, to the legendary City of Bones. There, Barlow gains an understanding of the story of his ancestors, setting him on the path to redemption.

The cast, under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, is perfection. Stephanie Berry makes a powerful impression as Aunt Ester, the matriarch of the community, exuding authority and nobility like an aura. James A. Williams’ Solly Two Kings is her match, summoning his own strengths to be a leader of his people, yet tender and playful in his dealings with Aunt Ester. Bill Irwin brings humor as Selig, a white man who is sympatico with the Hill District inhabitants, even rascally when they need him to be. Eli, as portrayed by Brian D. Coats, is the caretaker not only of Aunt Ester but of the house at 1839 Wylie and those who dwell there. Stephen Tyrone Williams is remarkable as Citizen Barlow, showing us the soul of a man in spiritual torment who seeks and finds a kind of ease with himself and his past that also allows a chance of love with Black Mary to blossom.

As for Crystal A. Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden, whenever I see their names attached to a Two River Theater project, I know I will see theatrical talent at its finest. This husband and wife team, separately and in tandem, have produced some of the most glorious portrayals on any stage. I cannot find the words to express the quality of their work — Ms. Dickinson in Two River’s recent production of Alice Childress’ Wine in the Wilderness, Mr. Dirden as director and opening night replacement in August Wilson’s Radio Golf, the last installment of the “Century Cycle” and Wilson’s last play. Their work as Caesar Wilks and Black Mary Wilks, brother and sister, sizzles and crackles with the conflict of family bonds and vastly different, insurmountable points of view.

Two River Theater is to be commended for their dedication to mounting all ten plays in August Wilson’s “Century Cycle”, and especially for this production of Gem of the Ocean. This is a majestic play, its messages echoing through the entire cycle, and it would be a shame to miss seeing it unfold before you. I cannot more strongly encourage you to see Gem of the Ocean before its run ends.

Gem of the Ocean is presented in the Robert and Joan Rechnitz Theatre at Two River Theater in Red Bank through June 30th. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to tworivertheater.org or call 732-345-1400.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.