‘Gem of the Ocean,’ at Two River Theater, represents August Wilson at his best

gem of the ocean review


Crystal A. Dickinson, left, and Brandon J. Dirden co-star in “Gem of the Ocean” at Two River Theater in Red Bank.

Aunt Ester — the community matriarch in August Wilson’s drama “Gem of the Ocean, which is currently being presented at Two River Theater in Red Bank — has magical powers. She can wash your soul. Yet the character in the play who is most in need of a soul-washing, Caesar, is least likely to seek it. He holds considerable power in the area of Pittsburgh where Ester lives, as a constable and landlord, but that power has curdled into an unforgiving, unquestioning cruelty. He isn’t the kind of guy to consider asking Ester for help.

With a character like Caesar — played with daunting intensity by Brandon J. Dirden in this production, which is directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg — lurking around, it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise when the play culminates in tragedy. But there is a lot of down-home humor here, too, and a wild scene in which we see Ester (played with regal authority by Stephanie Berry) in action, conducting one of her ritualistic, supernatural soul-washing ceremonies.


Stephanie Berry in “Gem of the Ocean.”

“Gem of the Ocean” is part of Wilson’s acclaimed “Pittsburgh Cycle” (also known as the “Century Cycle”), a series of 10 plays about African-American life in the 20th century, with one set in each of the century’s decades, and most of them taking place in the same neighborhood. Though the first in the series, chronologically — it is set in 1904 — it was the second-to-last to be written, premiering in April 2003, two and a half years before Wilson’s death.

It is not really among the best known of the 10 plays. Works such as “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” have received more acclaim, been produced more often and been made into movies (while “Gem of the Ocean” has not). But this production, I feel, really makes a case that this is a rich and absorbing play, and should be considered among Wilson’s best.

The action is set into motion by the arrival of a stranger, the young Citizen Barlow (Stephen Tyrone Williams), at Aunt Ester’s home. He is in desperate need, he feels, of a soul-washing. We don’t know why, at first, but eventually we learn what is torturing him.

Also living in this house is Ester’s protégée Black Mary (Crystal A. Dickinson), who is Caesar’s sister, and Eli (Brian D. Coats), a former Underground Railroad “conductor” who now takes care of the elderly Ester and assists with the soul washings. And also stopping by at various times — the entire play takes place inside the house — are Caesar; Solly (James A. Williams), a fellow conductor from Eli’s Underground Railroad days; and Rutherford (Bill Irwin), a genial peddler who is the play’s only white character, but seems to be well regarded by everybody. (This is not necessarily something you would expect. Remember, it is 1904: Slavery is in the not-too-distant past and vividly remembered by many of these characters; conditions for Blacks in the South, we are reminded in some of the conversation, are still brutally bad).


Stephen Tyrone Williams and Crystal A. Dickinson in “Gem of the Ocean.”

They all come off like one big extended (and sometimes dysfunctional) family. “You give up on family and you ain’t got nothing left,” says Caesar at one point.

Eli and Solly have a strong, brotherly bond, and Ester treats Black Mary like a daughter: She is loving but also overbearingly bossy. One of the play’s biggest laughs comes when Black Mary finally stands up for herself, and Ester snaps back, “What took you so long!”

But the play’s one flesh-and-blood tie, between Black Mary and Caesar, is strained, because of Caesar’s tendency to act like … well, a Caesar, in this little corner of the world that he seems to have absolute power over.

Two River is planning to present all 10 plays in the “Pittsburgh Cycle” (not in order), in a project that began in 2012. “Gem of the Ocean” is the seventh in the series. I have really enjoyed the opportunity to see them in this way; it has helped me to see — more and more, with each production — how they all connect. Certain characters appear in multiple plays, and many common themes are explored. Though not written first, “Gem of the Ocean” could be seen as laying the foundation for everything that happens in the other plays.

It probably won’t happen, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world for the theater, once the project is over, to start all over again.

Two River Theater in Red Bank will present “Gem of the Ocean” through June 30. Visit tworivertheater.org.


Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter