Just before his death from cancer last year, playwright August Wilson completed his "decades" project of over 30 years: chronicling the African-American experience – their journey "from property to people" – through a cycle of plays set in his native Pittsburgh, one in each decade of the 20th century. Gem Of The Ocean was the penultimate play to be written (in 2003), but is first in the cycle, set in 1904.
Wilson's forte is articulating the big picture through the everyday: his characters' banter, their mundane activities, the stories they may each tell. He seldom breaks out in vulgar symbolism. This play, in contrast, centres on a symbol, though one which is anything but vulgar. Aunt Ester is a matriarch to the black community of Pittsburgh: counsellor, conscience, sometimes shaman. She is so old that she can produce a bill of sale for herself as a slave; indeed, she says she is 285 years old, which places her birth in 1619, the year of the first shipment of African slaves to the New World. (Her death occurs just before the action of Wilson's "1980s" play, King Hedley II.) Carmen Munroe plays Ester without any business of excessive superannuation: she's simply an old woman, but still relatively sound in body and thoroughly sharp of mind.
The community are exploited by the owners of the local tin mill and by Caesar, who is as his name suggests the temporal authority, both a lawman and the local godfather, and a black-hating black man. Even 40 years after the Civil War ended, emancipation has not taken root: word arrives that Alabama is attempting to prevent black people from fleeing the state, and when the mill is torched, even Pennsylvanians begin to talk about restoring slavery. All these events in the world outside arrive either by report or personified in the inhabitants of and visitors to the half-derelict apartment where Aunt Ester holds court and offers shelter and redemption to a select few.
Director Paulette Randall's fourth Wilson production for the Tricycle is everything that her recent Royal Court outing What's In The Cat was not: well staged, thoughtful, disciplined and potent. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith exudes principle, even when he is playing a thief, coward and indirectly a killer; Joseph Marcell oxymoronically provides a kind of twinkling gravitas, and Jenny Jules subtly conveys the suffering and longing beneath Black Mary's normal sullenness. The play makes a fine centrepiece to the Tricycle's six-month venture of staging plays with an ongoing black ensemble company.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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