August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’ resonates deeply at Arena Players

The cast performed admirably as characters whose journeys took them to crossroads of freedom in their lives.

Just live. An astounding statement that resonated deeply for me. So often we get so lost in the forest of life we forget to do that one little thing. To live. To truly live.

This brilliant play by August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean at Arena Players Inc., takes place in a humble kitchen and parlor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1904. Though the ninth play Wilson wrote in a series of ten (his American Century Cycle), it is the first representing the decade of the 1900s. This is a transitional time for African Americans. It’s following the ending of the Civil War and the evil that was slavery. Only to be swallowed up by the behemoth that is now freedom. Even though freedom is here, so many are still trapped emotionally, mentally, and yes, even physically. As William A. Walker, who depicted Solly Two Kings, states, “Freedom is what you make it. What good is freedom if you do nothing with it?” This play represents the very beginning of the journey that takes you through the decades of American history. No ice, no chaser. Very real history that forces you to sit and see things that weren’t in your textbook. Yes, there are times you will be made to be uncomfortable. But that’s the point, is it not?

Scene from ‘Gem of the Ocean.’ Photo courtesy of Tenyo Pearl.

For those who are familiar with August Wilson, you know his plays are truly complex, and an honest mastery of the art form. Gem of the Ocean is not an easy play to take on, but this cast directed by Donald Owens performed admirably. While the characters routinely share the spotlight, the two main ones for me were Aunt Ester, represented by Sharon Carter Brown, and Solly Two Kings. Aunt Ester is the central, spiritual guide in this story. As the “soul washer,” she is often sought out by troubled people who need help in finding their path. Sharon Brown gave life to Aunt Ester with the grace and style that you would expect to see from a Black woman who has lived a lifetime in slavery and found freedom amid the ruins. Even though she is soft-spoken, you can’t help but pay attention to her story, and the lessons she shares with you.

Scenes from ‘Gem of the Ocean.’ Photos courtesy of Tenyo Pearl.

Just as Aunt Ester is a quiet force, Solly Two Kings is boisterous and demands your attention. William A. Walker was easily likable in this role and commanded instant respect. You could feel the weight of his journey and empathize with his utter loss of direction when he found himself on the shores of Canada. His decision to go back and help slaves find freedom was not so much about courage as it was about community. He wanted people to have the chance to live life outside of bondage. As he saw it, how could he be free when others weren’t?

Black Mary acted by Keyonna LaShawn is Aunt Ester’s “student.” She is trying to learn the ways of Aunt Ester while healing her own hurts. Even though Keyonna LaShawn didn’t really find her groove, she still gave a respectable performance. Her voice was clearly filled with sadness and anger when she denounced her brother Cesar Wilks, portrayed by Antoine Williams. Cesar, who is often harsh and unforgiving, still offered a sliver of truth, however misguided. Even he could understand the importance of family and the importance of the “big picture.” His truth was often unpopular, and it was barely tolerated but it was real and honest. Eli, interpreted by Rysheem McGirt, was Aunt Ester’s helper and guardian. Although he spent a fair amount of time answering the door, he now and again offered his own sage advice. Rysheem McGirt offered a fair performance and allowed you to see how the sheer weight of being Black in the post-Civil War era could weigh on a person. Isaiah Evans performed the role of Citizen Barlow in a way that made you feel compassion for not just him but so many with a similar story. So often we find ourselves in such a quagmire of insurmountable circumstances that the light at the end becomes an illusion. Although I did find a bit of joy in seeing that despite being of a different race Rutherford Sleig, represented by Richard Peck, gave respect, kindness, and ultimately his help to a cause and burden that was not his. Richard Peck made me optimistic with his straightforward portrayal of such a simple but dignified character.

To live. To truly live. All these characters had journeys that took them to the same figurative crossroads in their lives. They had to decide. Stay lost and wandering in the dark or come into the light to live their lives. The decision was not an easy one, but it was a privilege to watch it unfold.

Running time: Two Hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Gem of the Ocean plays through April 28, 2024, at Arena Players Inc., 801 McCulloh Street, Baltimore, MD. To purchase tickets ($30–$35), go online or call 410-728-6500.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional. Arena Players’ health and safety policy is here.

August Wilson’s ‘American Century Cycle’ to play at 10 theaters in Baltimore (news story, April 3, 2024)

Gem of the Ocean
By August Wilson
Directed by Donald Owens
Assistant Director: Tenyo Pearl; Production Manager and Light Technician: Felicia Chapple; Stage Managers: Sandra Meekin and Octavia N. Beasley; Sound by Octavia N. Beasley and Byron “TJ” Rogers Jr.; Costumer: Victoria Jackson; Set Construction/Design by Alex Lopez; Set Painter: Byron “TJ” Rogers Sr.


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