Monday 23 January 2006

Gem of the Ocean

Tricycle Theatre, London

Pittsburgh, 1904. A house, a slum. Dull, drab. The stage dips in the middle, as if the dwelling resided on a sewer. Post-slavery, are black Americans really free? Solomon muses, ‘They never made emancipation what they said it was.’ August Wilson’s neglected play reflects upon more than race relations; his characters are much more than products of a racially stratified society. Here, the subject of slavery spans concepts of faith, religion, freedom, reason and law. Paulette Randall’s thoughtful production pays detailed attention to each of these, and brings out the warmth and contradictions of Wilson’s characters.

Aunt Esther is revered as a ‘washer of souls’, attracting visitors in need of mercy, or simply faith. Her home provides a sort of commune for Mary (her maid), Solomon (a jovial admirer) and Rutherford. But it is young Citizen Barlow, as the intruder and mysterious outsider, who injects the dramatic intrigue into the play. Having escaped the mass-unemployment of Alabama, he seeks both work and spiritual guidance in the North. Citizen’s arrival reminds us of the bias of state law and tests the logic of redemption. Throughout Act One we hear the legal case of a black man who drowned himself after being accused of stealing a bucket of nails, but at the end of the act, we learn of Citizen’s thieving guilt. Aunt Esther, a pillar of calm throughout the play, listens to Citizen’s story, accepting his repentance because she has faith in it. In a nightmarish scene, she takes him, as if spellbound or hypnotised, on an imagined journey to the ‘City of Bones’ by boat, the ‘Gem of the Ocean’. It is a figurative leap to the Pearly Gates, as Esther forces Citizen to confront the truth of his guilt, thereby purging him. Although Aunt Esther’s methods seem pagan, the play’s dialogue is sprinkled with Christian quotations, like touchstones. The Bible acts as an underlying source of strength, pinning meaning to the lives of these displaced characters, when the state refuses to acknowledge them.

Aunt Esther’s home becomes both a spiritual and social sanctuary, offering an alternative to the white system of judgement and oppressive law. ‘You can put the law on a piece of paper, but that don’t make it right’. In a rousing monologue, Esther holds up the document that held her identity, the legal piece of paper once brandished by her white master. By bringing together the two generations of black Americans, Wilson keeps the experience of slavery within living memory on stage, a vivid context for the setting of uprooted America and fractured family life. Like Citizen, desperate individuals are mobilised to seek work and shelter independently. Solomon is separated from his Southern sister and Aunt Esther’s ‘family’ is a surrogate one. In fact, the only blood relatives on stage are siblings Mary and Sealey, but in other ways they are the furthest apart.

In the tense transition towards racial emancipation, Gem of the Ocean resists a simplistic portrayal of race relations. ‘Don’t let nobody tell you there ain’t no good white people’, Solomon advises Citizen, having met the benign Sealey. Just as white characters can reject the status quo, so, black characters can conform to it. Randall makes a dramatic metaphor of Mary’s brother, Caesar’s, first stage entrance: aggressively disrupting a convivial conversation between Solomon, Rutherford and Citizen, Caesar shows his resolute refusal to identify with his race. ‘Some of these niggers were better off in slavery’, he barks. Caesar distances himself from other black men, regarding himself as the ‘boss’ and therefore a ‘free man’ for his power over other black people. Working for a white regime (the police force), Caesar has internalised racist ideas, exemplifying Franz Fanon’s model of ‘black skin/white mask’. A suit-wearing, gun-wielding patriarch, Caesar contrasts in status and attitudes to every other character in the play and reminds us that Aunt Esther’s haven-like home is not impenetrable. But Mary remembers a different brother than this man, and so we also understand that Caesar’s soullessness is the result of a soulless America.

Wilson writes elegantly and intelligently in the language of morality and reason, nurturing wonderfully distinct characterisations, from the charming and charismatic Solomon, to warm and wise Esther and the ruthless Caesar. Paulette Randall’s powerful production elicits terrific performances from this repertory cast (especially Joseph Marcell as a superb Solomon) in the current Tricycle season of black plays (which also included Walk Hard - Talk Loud). Randall sustains her audience’s focus by maximising the impact of Wilson’s ingredients - humour, drama and pathos - the ingredients of any great play.

Till 11 February 2006

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