Review: Gem of the Ocean

The April 23 University of Georgia theater performance of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” was outright spectacular, with powerful themes of oppression and perseverance.

The setting is in industrializing Pittsburgh in the Jim Crow era — around 1904, where Black people struggle with the American promise of freedom tainted by oppression, injustice and poverty.  

At the center of the play is a 285-year-old woman named Aunt Esther (Nikki Clay), who often plays a spiritual healer in Wilson’s plays. Aunt Esther embodies the past oppression and terror Black people faced during times of slavery. She claims to be one of the first enslaved people to be brought to America. In “Gem,” Aunt Esther runs a sanctuary for those who are lost, where she can heal and purify their souls. Clay plays Aunt Esther beautifully, capturing the attention and dictating the mood in the room. 

The main conflict involves Citizen (Olu Adeleye) and his internal guilt after stealing a bucket of nails and being responsible for another man’s death. Citizen comes to Aunt Esther’s sanctuary in hopes of purifying his soul. There, he meets a fierce woman named Black Mary (Charence Higgins), who he quickly tries to entice, and Eli (Jayden Shepherd), who is not as welcoming. Black Mary — who is in line to take over Aunt Esther’s duties when her time comes — and Eli help take care of the sanctuary and Aunt Esther.

Black Mary is anything but submissive and turns down Citizen’s weak attempts to seduce her. She later stands up to her brother Cesar Wilks (Joshua Dixon), a thriving police officer who differs from his neighbors because of his capitalist views.

Cesar got into an argument with Solly Two Kings over the workers unions rising due to unfair condiotions and pay at a mill, then the mill was set on fire and burned down. Cesar suspects that Cesar has taken some part in the crime. Photo courtesy of Michaela Wilkins.

The play takes a magical realism turn when Aunt Esther gives Citizen a paper boat that turns into a boat named the Gem of the Ocean, magically transferring Citizen to the City of the Bones: a place filled with memories of the past and the bones of oppressed people. 

REFUSING TO REMAIN SILENT: Eli, Aunt Esther, Black Mary, and Solly all refuse to live a life where people are treated injustily. The all run a sanctuary, to help lost souls. Eli works to build a wall around the sanctuary when Citzen, a desperate man, interrupts his building looking for Aunt Esther. Photo courtesy of Michaela Wilkins.

As an audience member, it was difficult not to become emotional during the spiritual journey to the City of the Bones. Citizen purifies his soul by enduring the suffering of his ancestors  — including being whipped and witnessing families being ripped apart by slave owners. The performance feels so real that it’s tear-jerking and raw. Director Chuma Gault made a powerful decision to display the actors’ faces and photos on the big screen while Citizen is whipped. These stark emotional connections pull the audience to think of their own lives or others who have persevered through turbulent times. 

ANYTHING BUT SUBMISSIVE: Black Mary (Charence Higgins) is an empowered black woman, who is anything but submissive. She is often surprising characters with her fierce resistance to being what society wants of a woman – to be a fragile, fearful, compliant housewife. Photo courtesy of Michaela Wilkins.

The second half of the play centers around the conflict between Cesar Wilkes and Solly Two Kings (Maurice Chinnery), an Underground Railroad conductor. Energetic and compelling, Solly has taken back his identity after being enslaved by renaming himself after the Bible’s King Solomon and King David. Solly symbolizes hope; he is determined to fight against injustice until all Black people and marginalized communities are truly free. 

The play is filled with inspiring, tense and enlightening moments, such as when Cesar attempts to search the sanctuary with a warrant, but Aunt Esther pulls out the documents that sold her body and life to a slave owner. Then she explains to Cesar that paper, documents or even laws don’t matter if they’re unjust and wrong. Scenes like this tie the play back into present-day events, making the audience think of laws that are unjust to this day. 

The ending of the play is very rushed, but this comes as no surprise — August Wilson is notorious for his sudden and sad endings. 

SPIRTUAL HEALER:  Aunt Esther (Nikki Clay) brings powerful themes and messages to the play. She is a spiritual healer, who heals those you have suffered from unjust laws. Photo courtesy of Michaela Wilkins.

Although the play was very tense, August Wilson and Gault never fail to cut the tension and heaviness with laughter. The play is extraordinary and empowering, making the audience reflect on the American government now, the injustices people of color still face today and the duties we have as citizens to remember and challenge discrimination. The actors are brilliantly composed and patient, drawing out the tensions, fear, bravery, compassion and righteous anger of the past. 

Lilly McGreevy

Sophomore Lilly McGreevy is the Assistant Features Editor for BluePrints Magazine. She hopes to pursue a career that involves the outdoors or go into criminal law. McGreevy loves to read and plays soccer for the Lady Jags. This year, she would like to improve her interviewing skills and finish pieces in a timely manner. Her favorite aspect of journalism is that it gives her the opportunity to engage with people outside of her classes and social circles.