How do you handle freedom once you've got it? And what if you are not really free? Those two questions hover over August Wilson's majestic, mystical rumination called "Gem of the Ocean," which finally opened Monday at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre after financial difficulties nearly derailed its New York run.
This haunting play, the latest in Wilson's decade-by-decade look at the black experience in 20th century America, is an impressive achievement. The production, directed with a sure hand by Kenny Leon, is rich in character and story. What's more, it's performed with a fierce commitment by a fine company of actors, led by a commanding Phylicia Rashad, who plays the matriarchal Aunt Esther.
The time is 1904 in Pittsburgh's Hill District, and the setting is a crumbling gothic parlor and kitchen at 1839 Wylie Ave., Aunt Esther's home. The old woman is a spiritual adviser to the city's black community. And she is the keeper of traditions that date to the arrival of the first slaves in America in the early 1600s.
Those traditions provide a sense of self for a people freed from slavery only four decades earlier. That freedom has proved to be elusive, particularly in 1904 Pittsburgh, where economic bondage has become just as stifling as life in the South before the Civil War. According to several of Wilson's carefully crafted characters, it's all in how you deal with those newfound chains.
"Freedom is what you make it," says Eli, Aunt Esther's stoic gatekeeper, who keeps an eye on his benefactor.
"You got to fight to make it mean something. ... What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it?" says Solly Two Kings, a garrulous old man who once worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and now comes around Wylie Avenue to court Aunt Esther.
Solly, a colorful, humorous crank played to the hilt by Anthony Chisholm, is a rebel, a combative person who fondly recalls his heroic work for runaway slaves during the Civil War.
Yet only Caesar (played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson in a memorably villainous turn) knows how to make a profitable accommodation with the white establishment. "I got to play the hand that was dealt to me," he says with a hardened practicality that does not endear him to other members of the community.
Freedom can be confusing, too, especially to young Citizen Barlow (a solid John Earl Jelks), who arrives at the old woman's door seeking to cleanse his soul. He's seeking redemption for an unspecified act, a mystery that would be unfair to reveal because, besides being a master of poetic language, Wilson also is a storyteller supreme.
Aunt Esther takes Barlow on a journey to the City of Bones, that resting spot for slaves who never made it from Africa to the New World. It's an exhilarating adventure, one that Rashad relates with considerable theatricality.
Also in the cast is the lovely LisaGay Hamilton as Black Mary, Aunt Esther's protege, a determined young woman kept under the thumb of her strong mentor. When Mary finally breaks loose, it is with an anger that wins cheers from the audience.
Although it is the ninth play in the cycle to be written, "Gem of the Ocean," is the cycle's curtain raiser, the opening act for an achievement that is staggering in its ambition and scope,
Now, there is only one more play to go - "Radio Golf," which arrives next spring at Yale Rep in Connecticut. This final play, which takes place in the 1990s, also is set on Wylie Avenue, as Aunt Esther's house is about to be demolished. Let's hope it is as mesmerizing as "Gem of the Ocean."
At the center of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" is a ceremony of exorcism in which a troubled young man named Citizen is led to a City of Bones in the middle of the Atlantic, where so many slaves died.
In his vision of the joyful city, a symbol of African-American triumph over adversity, Citizen confesses to a crime for which another man took his life.
Freed from guilt, he sets out on a new path, eventually laying claim to a walking stick that commemorates slaves brought North on the Underground Railroad.
As this all-too-brief plot summary suggests, Wilson's play, the ninth in his decade-by-decade portrait of African- American life in the 20th century, freely blends realism and metaphor, the mundane, the ecstatic and the tragic.
In Wilson's canon it most nearly resembles "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which makes sense, given that it is set in 1904, a decade before the earlier play. Both plays rely on ritual more than those later in the cycle.
They also depend more than the others on pure theatricality. Here, under Kenny Leon's astonishing direction, that sense of theater, especially in the exorcism scene, is extraordinary.
Several of the characters in "Gem" have known slavery. Solly Two Kings, the possessor of the symbolic walking stick, was a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.
All the characters experience the disillusion of African-Americans four decades after the end of the Civil War, which theoretically freed them, and a decade after Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the rule of Jim Crow.
The most important character is Aunt Ester, who has been an offstage figure in several other plays. She is as old as slavery in America and has always been a spiritual adviser to the black community in Pittsburgh, where all the plays are set.
Here she appears onstage for the first time in the august personage of Phylicia Rashad, who has been heavily made up and padded. The authority she exerts has less to do with these externals than Rashad's ability to project a profound mixture of sadness and mystical wisdom.
It is a monumental portrayal.
So is Anthony Chisholm's performance as the heroic Solly, leavening his sense of power with sly humor.
John Earl Jelks makes a sensational debut as Citizen, conveying anguish, innocent wonder and ultimately great strength on his odyssey from moral confusion to commitment to a newly found community.
Lisagay Hamilton has a similar strength as Aunt Ester's assistant, especially in a scene where she finds her own voice. In the tricky role of her brother, who uses his power wrongfully, Ruben Santiago-Hudson has surprising elegance and authority.
Eugene Lee and Raynor Scheine are strong in two small parts.
David Gallo's set makes a wonderful backdrop for this mythical story, as do Constanza Rornero's richly textured costumes.
At times, the play seems strained in its effort to sound so many notes, but in Leon's gifted hands, the actors give Wilson's noble vision a luminous aura.
Playing a 287-year-old African-American matriarch - that's right, 287 - Phylicia Rashad is the lustrous jewel of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Happily, other gleaming performances shine up from the ocean bed of Wilson's distressingly murky yet deeply felt new play, its deliberate, slowly unfurling drama broken by lightning flashes of violence or passion.
Wilson has been exploring the spectrum of the African-American experience during the 20th century through 10 plays, each one devoted to a specific decade - a feat that sounds more pompous than it is.
"Gem of the Ocean" is actually the ninth play in this cycle, but chronologically it's the first. Set in 1904, it takes place, like all the others, in the same Pittsburgh district where Wilson was raised, at a time when black America is still enmeshed in the backlash of the Civil War.
Fleeing Alabama is a young man meaningfully named Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks, in a wrenchingly restrained performance) who's come to the mythically old Aunt Ester (Rashad) to seek redemption for a murder - one of circumstance rather than intention.
She knows that Citizen can be saved only by returning to the City of Bones, an Atlantis-like domain where one of the first slave ships, the Gem of the Ocean, sank with all aboard.
In a seance-like journey, Ester - assisted by Black Mary (a sassy LisaGay Hamilton), a surviving conductor of slavery's 19th-century Underground Railroad to Canada; Solly Two Kings (a marvelously whimsical Anthony Chisholm); and her stalwart servant Eli (Eugene Lee) - subjects Citizen to a voodoo-like ceremony of cleansing and discovery.
Wilson's play is about morality, justice, law and order as a black generation tries to come to terms with a new freedom that seems horribly like its old slavery.
This splits the black community - part of it like Black Mary, searching for life and freedom, and part, like her fast-talking, slick-thinking brother, Caesar (a splendid, sharp-etched performance by Ruben Santiago-Hudson).
Staged by Kenny Leon with a shrewd feel of ritual, both sacred and profane, an atmosphere enhanced by David Gallo's richly dark setting for Ester's house, and Constanza Romero's somber costumes, the play suggests a solemn glitter.
Unfortunately, its attempt to express (with a 287-year-old priestess of the soul, no less) the inner spirituality of an outer history is weighed down by its mythic overtones. I, for one, believe Wilson's at his best when, in works such as "Jitney" or "Fences," he is at his most accessible.
Yet Rashad herself, in a griot-like performance of unflustered power and oceanic depth, makes our evening worthwhile, and with a supporting cast shining through the text like a black opal in a mist, this is surely one of the best-acted plays in New York.
Still, when all is obscurely said and handsomely acted, the image of black America on the brink of national realization emerges with only a dusty clarity.
Walls turn into water in the second act of ''Gem of the Ocean,'' the grandly evangelical new play by August Wilson that opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater. And though anyone watching this metamorphosis may well describe it as miraculous, the moment is achieved without anything like the special effects associated with Cecil B. DeMille in biblical mode.
It is instead the sound of human voices, remembering other voices of men and women long dead, that transforms a very solid-looking parlor in a home in Pittsburgh into an ocean on which a slave ship floats.
The year is 1904, and a black man with the burdensome name of Citizen is being led by the incantatory speech and song of those around him into the collective memory of his people. Suddenly, Citizen is hearing cries and whispers from centuries earlier. And the soft words, as he repeats them, rumble like thunder: ''Remember me.''
Those words might be the credo of the great cycle of dramas that Mr. Wilson has been writing since 1979, all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. For black Americans to forget their past, Mr. Wilson has suggested in plays that include the superb ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone'' and the Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Fences,'' is to be without a compass in the present and a clear road to the future.
The recent history of Broadway, of course, has not boded well for the future of thoughtful theater. And as of last month it still was uncertain as to whether ''Gem of the Ocean,'' which found itself short of financing, would even open this season.
That it has opened should be a relief to anyone concerned with serious American drama. And theatergoers who have followed Mr. Wilson's career will find in his ''Gem'' a touchstone for everything else he has written.
But ''Gem'' is also the least dramatically involving of his plays. Directed by Kenny Leon, with a strong cast led by Phylicia Rashad, ''Gem'' has passages of transporting beauty. But it is the first of Mr. Wilson's dramas to lack people whose flesh feels as palpable as your own. The characters in ''Gem,'' who include a former slave who is some 280 years old, are not exactly cardboard. They are more like pieces of parchment on which legends of the past and maps to the future have been drawn in swooping strokes of ink.
This is not inappropriate to the position of ''Gem'' in Mr. Wilson's body of work. The ninth production in the cycle of a projected 10 plays set in different decades (only the 1990's remain), ''Gem'' is also its first chapter chronologically, taking place in a time when slavery remains a living memory. It is a swelling overture of things to come, a battle hymn for an inchoate republic of African-Americans just beginning to discover the price of freedom. As one character puts it, they ''got a long row to hoe and ain't got no plow.''
At the center of ''Gem'' is Aunt Ester (Ms. Rashad), whose improbable age suggests that she arrived with one of the first shipments of slaves to America. She has been mentioned with reverence and awe in previous plays by Mr. Wilson, including ''Two Trains Running'' and ''King Hedley II,'' where she is described as ''the Book of Life'' incarnate.
She now makes her long-awaited entrance, in the opening scene of ''Gem'' in a sly anticlimax, hunched and folksy in a worn plaid robe.
Aunt Ester, of course, is not just folks. She is the presiding figure in an allegorical canvas, an enduring spirit from a brutal past who will help the troubled Citizen (John Earl Jelks), who believes he has killed a man, find redemption.
Citizen's alternate routes to manhood are embodied by two other characters, the grizzled Solly Two Kings (Anthony Chisholm) -- a former guide on the Underground Railroad and one of the ragged oracles who appear regularly in Mr. Wilson's work -- and the younger Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a self-made entrepreneur and constable who plays, cynically and self-importantly, by the white man's oppressive rules.
Rounding out the ensemble are Ester's loyal assistants -- Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton), who is Caesar's sister, and Eli (Eugene Lee) -- and Rutherford Selig (Raynor Scheine), a traveling salesman and the play's only white character.
''Gem'' has acquired more warmth and vigor since I saw an earlier version last year, directed by Marion McClinton (and featuring Mr. Leon as Citizen) at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. And its big poetic moments, including Citizen's visionary journey on a slave ship, are now exquisitely enhanced by the technical production (especially Donald Holder's lighting). Yet the play's dramatic immediacy is still eclipsed by your awareness of the metaphorical resonance of every event, relationship and character.
And though the dialogue is woven from the tasty, salty vernacular that Mr. Wilson is famous for, the characters, especially Ester and Solly, often speak in weighty aphorisms. (''I'd rather die in truth than live a lie.'' ''If the wheel don't turn the right way, you got to fix it.'')
It's not easy playing a metaphor. As Ester, Ms. Rashad, who won a Tony Award earlier this year as another inspiring matriarch in ''A Raisin in the Sun'' (also directed by Mr. Leon), impressively mixes down-home coziness and great lady stateliness. (I kept thinking of the elderly Ethel Barrymore.) But she never connects convincingly with the immemorial, scary darkness of Ester's past.
It is Ms. Hamilton and Mr. Jelks who ground the production in a firmer emotional reality, and it's a pleasure to watch their characters' awkward, tentative dance of mutual attraction. When Citizen describes to Mary his memory of a woman in a blue dress with whom he spent one night, it's in one of those rare and wonderful monologues in the theater where the plain and the lyrical, the particular and the eternal, merge into a luminous whole. It's a reminder that when Mr. Wilson is at the top of his form, there are few living playwrights who can touch him.
Like the radiant actress who plays her, Aunt Ester, a central character in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean (* * * out of four), appears much younger than she actually is. But the physical similarities between player and character stop there.
As Ester, who is 285 years old but doesn't seem a day over 80, Phylicia Rashad looks and sounds unrecognizable. Stooped and slow-moving, her left hand trembling in arthritic distress, the woman who until recently was best known as Bill Cosby's TV wife seems even less her stunning self than she did portraying a stern matriarch in last season's Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
But like that Tony Award-winning turn, Rashad's performance in Gem, which opened Monday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, isn't memorable merely for its lack of vanity. As her advanced age suggests, Ester, who previously has appeared in Wilson's plays, is a mystical figure whom Citizen Barlow, the young protagonist of Gem, believes can redeem his soul. Rashad exudes such earthy authority and dignity in the role that we never doubt her powers, either.
The spiritual journey the play takes us on can invite more skepticism. The latest chapter in Wilson's anthology tracing African-American experience through the 20th century, Gem examines, as Wilson's work invariably does, the possibility of faith in an unjust world.
What it finds is not always clear or convincing.
But the force of Wilson's humanism and the lyrical majesty of his writing transcend whatever doubts or inconsistencies may pop up.
The play is set in 1904 in Philadelphia. Nearly four decades after slavery was abolished, racism remains so virulent that Southern blacks risk beatings and worse to travel north. Barlow arrives at Ester's house seeking a different sort of refuge; there he meets Black Mary, who cares for the old sage, and Solly Two Kings, a former Underground Railroad conductor who will offer Barlow guidance in his own way.
Director Kenny Leon, who worked with Rashad in A Raisin in the Sun, hasn't yet developed as much of an ear for the musicality of Wilson's language as the playwright's veteran collaborator, Marion McClinton. The actors nonetheless deliver vital, finely tuned performances, from John Earl Jelks' vigorous Barlow to LisaGay Hamilton's sharp but tender Mary.
Anthony Chisholm captures both Solly's world-weariness and his indomitability, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays Mary's brother Caesar, the power-drunk local constable, with dazzling wit. Granted, Caesar's ability to amuse wanes as he goes after the more sympathetic characters, including Ester.
I wouldn't want to be the man who defies Aunt Ester - not any more than I'd wish to be one of the women challenging Rashad at next year's Tony Awards.