August Wilson’s mythopoetic and mythopoeic play Gem of the Ocean

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Arden Theatre Company is now presenting August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean on their F. Otto Haas Stage, now until March 31.


Gem of the Ocean is one of the last plays August Wilson (1945-2005) wrote before his death, but it is the first in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, a series of ten plays where each play deals with a specific decade in the 20th Century. Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904 in Pittsburgh, PA, where many of Wilson’s plays occur.


The plot of Gem of the Ocean deals with a young man’s journey and the people he meets during a time of upheaval in the city due to a stolen bucket of nails.  A man has chosen to drown in a river since no one believed him to be innocent. Citizen Barlow is the young man obsessed with meeting Aunt Ester, a mystic said to be nearly 300 years old and who can “clean men’s souls.” Akeem Davis is the earnest actor in the role of Citizen Barlow, and he performs admirably. As Aunt Ester Tyler, Zuhairah pontificates and eerily sees through the thoughts of most men. Her performance style channels both the grand shade of Ethel Barrymore along with the cadence and sassiness of Chris Rock. Brian Anthony Wilson, a very fine actor, commands the stage instantly as Solly Two Kings, a complex man who collects dog feces to sell (as fuel, a magical item, or something else, it really isn’t explained). He was a former slave and appears to have a romantic history with Aunt Ester. Steven Wright as Eli lives in Aunt Ester’s house and cares for her. Eli was also a slave and worked with Solly on the Underground Railroad. Living in Aunt Ester’s house is Black Mary (majestically portrayed by Danielle Lenee). Black Mary lives with Aunt Ester because she cannot abide her brother Caesar, played with venom and menace by Bowman Wright. It falls to Caesar to be the playwright’s operatic mouthpiece for every unsavory, unspeakable, and evil thought while revealing his suffering. Like a character out of a Wagnerian opera, Caesar launches into several protracted, character-driven hate buffets to offset the integrity and humanity displayed by the other characters. Completing this fine cast is Brian McCann as Rutherford Selig, a white businessman and family friend.


Distinguished actor and director James Ijames directed this production with a sure and steady hand, clearly allowing his actors to find their own truths. Readers of Philly Gay Calendar will no doubt recall James Ijames wonderful performance as Algernon in The Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s recent production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.


August Wilson’s plays often have a supernatural element to them, and Gem of the Ocean is no exception.  There is a long, eerie interlude where several characters don their Sunday best to journey to a mythical city of bones, which we discover is a magical, hypnotic event where Citizen experiences what it was like to come over on a slave ship (the ship is named Gem of the Ocean) from Africa. This harrowing spectacle would have provided the ideal ending to this long (2 hours and 45 minutes as performed here) play. Instead, it is only an anticlimax. Many more scenes ensue. One can only wonder if Wilson had the time left to him, would he have revisited and revised his play after its premiere in 2003. This we will never know.


This fine production of the seldom seen Gem of the Ocean speaks loudly to the African-American community (and to us all) about the evils of slavery, gratitude to those who have helped in their struggle, and the need for continued vigilance and effort towards a sense of humanity and equal rights for us all.


August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is at the Arden Theatre Company’s F. Otto Haas stage until March 31.  It will soon be joined by another August Wilson play, How I Learned What I Learned, beginning March 7 through April 14. For more information about both plays and for ticket information, visit or call 215-922-1122.

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