August Wilson and the Black Rep have served each other well, and St. Louis theatergoers have been the beneficiaries. In recent years the company's impressive productions of Seven Guitars, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and King Hedley II have provided some of the most challenging yet rewarding theater in town. Now the Black Rep is filling out its dance card with Gem of the Ocean, chronologically the first (though the ninth to be written) in Wilson's ambitious ten-play cycle that chronicles the African-American experience in the twentieth century.
Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the action occurs at a time when the Civil War is still a vivid, if distant, memory. Some Northerners are wary of the blacks' postwar urban migrations. "We ought to send them south again," someone complains offstage. Others threaten to rekindle the Civil War in order to restore the prewar status quo. But if that were to happen, then who would work the Pittsburgh steel mills? At the outset of this still-young century, "industry is what drives the country."
That's the social background of the play. The plot concerns a guilt-driven wanderer obsessed with the fact that someone else has been killed for a crime he committed. Citizen Barlow (J. Samuel Davis) seeks refuge in the spacious Pennsylvania home of Aunt Ester (Linda Kennedy), a pipe-smoking oracle who might be nearly 300 years old. Midway into Act Two, Ester, who "cried an ocean of tears" as she crossed the Atlantic on a seventeenth-century slave ship, helps Citizen to get his "soul washed" by escorting him (metaphorically) to the City of Bones at the bottom of the sea. In a rite of howling exorcism, Citizen hears a watery admonition from the dead Africans ("They all look like me!" he cries out) who did not survive the ocean crossings. As if in harmony with the perturbed ghost of Hamlet's father, these ghosts say, "Remember me."
Powerful stuff, and it would be more powerful still if the act that preceded the exorcism and the scenes that followed it were even remotely involving. But they're not. This is not Wilson at the peak of his powers, or even at the timberline. To be blunt, there is simply not much drama here. There's little conflict or tension among the seven characters. Exorcism aside, what occurs onstage is never as compelling as are our discoveries about what's happening offstage. Sure, the voyage to the City of Bones is theatrical, but it's hardly original. Wilson wrote a parallel paroxysm in 1984 in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which is set just seven years later in 1911. Isn't it because Andrea Frye did such a good job directing the bones sequence in Joe Turner for the Black Rep in 2004 that she's staging Gem of the Ocean?
I would never fault Frye for the evening's lethargy. She is working with an ensemble of gifted actors. Almost all these performers are Wilson veterans; if there were anything here to be delved, they would delve it. Last year, for instance, A.C. Smith and Ron Himes gave towering performances in King Hedley II. But on this outing there's not much for the actors to do other than to talk and talk, mostly about the past.
Aunt Ester is an especially disappointing character. After having alluded to her in play after play, Wilson finally brings her to life to little effect. There is nothing mystical about how she's written, nor do any of the characters onstage treat her as mystical. Kennedy's most affecting moment occurs at the end of the exorcism, when she leans back against her chair in such a way as to give both relief that the ordeal is over and thanks that she survived. Surely this moment is not in the script; this is the actor's craft. But life often imitates art: Don't be surprised if you find yourself stretching out in your theater seat in that same relieved manner at the end of this nearly three-hour journey to places we've already visited.