Rashad Shines in Gem of the Ocean

As the opening strains of a fiddle fill the room, the tone is set for the production of Gem of the Ocean. A story of love, politics and spirituality, Gem is, like the melody of the fiddle, simple but powerful, clear-cut but complicated.

Set in 1904, Gem is the ninth of the ten scripts playwright August Wilson penned to document the life of African-Americans in the 20th century. Nominated for Best Play in the 2005 Tony Awards, it takes place nearly 40 years after the Civil War, in Pittsburgh, with the memory of slavery still fresh in people’s minds. While slavery is no longer legal, it is still an issue. Some rejoice its abolition, while others resent it. Some wonder if anything has changed at all.

Currently playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York, Gem tells the story of a close-knit group of friends of 285-year-old resident Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad). Known as a soul-saver, Ester is sought after by Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks), a young man with a heavy burden. He desperately wants to wash his soul of his sins, and he is convinced Ester can help him. With Ester as his guide, Barlow travels to the mythical City of Bones, located at the bottom of the ocean, constructed from the glistening white bones of former slaves.

The play also illustrates the conflict of the changing role of African-Americans in society. This is personified in the character of Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). A black businessman and landlord, Caesar is caught between the white and black people of the neighborhood. Torn between being a businessman and a regular citizen, Caesar appears heartless and cruel until he delivers a powerful monologue, illustrating what he is struggling to do and what he has done.

Both moving and metaphorical, Gem’s script is filled with symbolism. The dialog is packed with similes and metaphors, and at times it becomes too much to handle.

Despite the flaws of the script, the play boasts flawless performances from a cast of brilliant actors. Rashad, who won a Tony Award this past year for her performance in A Raisin in the Sun and was nominated for Best Actress this year as well, exudes compassion and wisdom, as well as humor and vivacity. She effortlessly delivers a powerful performance as an old, wise woman. Wearing a purple dress and several layers of padding, Rashad depicts the wisdom of living for so many years, the compassion derived from being a slave as a child, and the humor and wit from having done and seen it all.

While Rashad is the big name of the show, the supporting cast is just as strong and dynamic. Anthony Chisolm’s Solly Two Kings is a dynamic mix of humor and wisdom. A former member of the Underground Railroad, Solly’s stories of slavery are touching, just as his wisecracks are witty. Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton) and Eli (Eugene Lee) provide a refreshing sense of reality and practicality. And Jelks’ performance of Citizen Barlow is so powerful, it is at times overwhelming. Witnessing his journey to the City of Bones is awe-inspiring. The ceremony is a combination of black history and voodoo, as Ester guides Citizen through a journey of remorse and regret until he guides himself to his own redemption.

What is truly remarkable about the cast is how they work together so harmoniously. The individual strengths of each actor’s performance easily combine into a collective production of outstanding caliber.
Gem of the Ocean may hit some rough spots on its journey, but it has enough wind in its sails to make it safely to the shore.

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