A Noise Within Theatre nears its final days of Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” directed by Gregg T. Daniel. The amazing display of the Black experience is a riveting collage of hardship, struggle, and freedom.
“Gem of the Ocean” takes viewers on a whirlwind ride, placed in 1904, on 1839 Wylie Avenue. The tale follows a man named Citizen Barlow (Evan Lewis Smith) traveling from Alabama to Pittsburgh to find Aunt Ester (Veralyn Jones), a 285-year-old “soul cleanser.” Citizen, in search of vindication from his past, meets Aunt Ester, the gatekeeper and peacekeeper at 1839 Wylie Avenue, Eli (Alex Morris), and protege Black Mary Wilks (Carolyn Ratteray). Solly Two Kings (Kevin Jackson), a friend of the home and Aunt Ester’ suitor, and Rutherford Selig (Bert Emmett), a frequent visitor at the home also find themselves acquainted with the young Citizen.
Citizen arrives at 1839 Wylie Ave. weeks after a neighborhood man drowned and the local mill had been shut down. With the city already in disarray, Barlow arrives at the home hoping Aunt Ester will cleanse his soul. Citizen eventually confesses he was involved in the crime that caused the death of the neighborhood man, which is when Aunt Ester decides to take him to the City of Bones.
While on the journey, Citizen’s experience becomes severely authentic, although he is only standing in Aunt Ester’s living room. He hears songs and screams alike, see shackles on others and feels them on his limbs. Once at the City of Bones, he confesses his sins and is then transported back to the living room with a clean soul.
While Gem of the Ocean heavily follows Citizen Barlow, we uncover many truths about characters like Solly Two Kings. Solly, a former conductor of the railroad also found himself in a heap of trouble as he attempted to get his sister who was still enslaved. Before reaching her, he sets the mill to fire, which then causes Ceasar Wilks (Chuma Gault), Black Mary’s brother and local law enforcer, to seek justice. However, for Ceasar, justice only comes in the form of a lifeless body.
Though Solly escapes, it isn’t long before Ceasar catches him. The play ends with Citizen carrying on the role of his friend Solly.
“Gem of the Ocean” was a true display of emotion, and the connection an individual has to their past. The methods of which people choose to cope with traumas, as well as the strength it takes to come together and fight a system built to tear one down. It was clear, both the audience and the cast enjoyed the show.
“It really had got me thinking about what that was like, and to this day I’m so much more hyperconscious of that,” Veralyn Jones shares with the audience during a post-show conversation. “To realize that the struggle continues really breaks my heart.”
“It’s so personal,” she continued, “It just transports me … just gives me so much to think about.”
“I think it surprised me how timely the play is. The play is set in 1904, but the issues are still relatable in 2019,” Alex Morris said when asked what surprised the group. “That’s the thing that really hit me the hardest when we started diving into it, and how relevant the play still is today.”
Evan Lewis Smith added, “it’s also really funny.” Which with such a heavy topic, the cast did a great job lifting the energy and providing humor when necessary.
“I think that’s what this play is meant to do, was to get us to think about these things. It’s not in the past it’s happening in the present,” Jones says contributing to Morris’s point. “It’s a problem for everybody and unless we confront it full-hearted, nothing will change.”
“Gem of the Ocean” will be showing until Saturday, November 16 at a Noise Within Theatre. To get tickets to the show visit https://www.anoisewithin.org/.