You think you supposed to know everything. Life is a mystery. Don’t you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain’t all for you to know. It’s all an adventure. That’s all life is. But you got to trust that adventure.
— Aunt Ester
The late and fabulously great playwright August Wilson (April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005) wrote a series of 10 plays which he dubbed “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” It’s a collection of powerful works about African Americans during different rotations in time, set in Pittsburgh. He crafted rich and authentic stories utilizing complex and enduring characters beginning with Aunt Ester. In Gem of the Ocean, there’s a lot of various characters that either pass by or stay a long while. Aunt Ester Tyler (Veralyn Jones is remarkable) is a grand force and imposing figure who freely speaks her mind. A former slave turned soul-cleanser, she helps others find their way in life. She doesn’t do it alone. By her side, is Black Mary Wilks (Carolyn Ratteray) Ester’s housekeeper and mentee. As hard as Black Mary cleans, dusts, washes countless dishes, the house is never clean enough for her almost 300-year-old employer. Black Mary is used to Ester’s annoying badgering. Eli (Alex Morris) has a tougher job which is taking care of the demanding matriarch at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which was the mecca of African American culture between 1920 through 1950 where jazz ruled. Whenever there’s a knock at the door, Eli states firmly, “this a peaceful house.” Unfortunately, not all who enter are peaceable-minded people.
There’s Caesar Wilks (Chuma Gault) Black Mary’s brother who pretty much runs the town. He’s the police, the baker and the landowner. Coming uninvited through the window is Citizen Barlow (Evan Lewis Smith) from Alabama. He heard through the human grapevine that Aunt Ester can cleanse souls. Citizen Barlow is on the run from Caesar over a minor offense. But, let Caesar tell it, Citizen Barlow robbed a few banks, killed a white man for the hell of it and stole some kid’s lunch money on his way through town. The cop-baker-landowner has it in for the young man at first sight. He threatens Barlow with jail if he should steal anything or worse, look at his sister sideways. He repeatedly spews out the “n” word often and freely. Caesar makes it well understood he is the law. His biggest case so far? He’s on the hunt for the thief who stole a bucket of nails. A misdemeanor turned into a federal case. He keeps a close eye on Citizen Barlow who keeps a watchful eye on Black Mary. Solly Two Kings (Kevin Jackson is engaging to watch) another former slave and ex-Underground Railroad conductor, fell on hard times and became the keeper of dog excrement. He talks big, acts big and proudly carries a carved out walking stick stomping it when he makes a point or a threat. A much friendlier face is Caucasian peddle salesman Rutherford Selig (Bert Emmett). He stops by now and then selling his wares to Ester and other interested parties.
Director Gregg T. Daniel executes Wilson’s powerful story of perseverance in strength and character. Each character individually represents where they stand pre and post slavery. Citizen Barlow and Black Mary are the new generation seeking a better way of life that includes happiness and being safe. Caesar is the new breed of African American men who have gone through hell and came out the other side receiving freedom but still a slave in his mentality. Solly Two Kings and Aunt Ester are the overseers keeping an eye on the other souls around them who need saving. Ester and Solly are powerful enough to do it. An amazing and mesmerizing show that will stay in the soul long after the curtain comes down.
Gem of the Ocean plays until Saturday, November 16th. Sun. Nov 3rd at 2 pm and 7 p.m., Sat. Nov 9th at 2 p.m. Sat. Nov 9th at 8 p.m., Sun. Nov 10th at 2:00 p.m., Fri. Nov 15th at 8 p.m. and Sat. Nov 16th at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at A Noise Within Theatre located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., in Pasadena. For ticket information log on to wwww.anoisewithin.org or by phone 626-356-3121.