We've all learned from books about the days of African-American slavery. But in Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson, the time is 1904 and some of the characters onstage were alive during those dark days before the Civil War.
That fact alone makes Gem, the first chronological installment of Wilson's sweeping Pittsburgh Cycle, a rare and valuable theatrical experience. But while the language is often powerful and lyrical, this production at Karamu labors at times to find the magic inherent in the material.
Although the set looks like a cross between a storefront and a home, it quickly becomes a metaphor for a slave ship, like the legendary one mentioned in the title. And the people "on board" span a range from realistic to symbolic.
At the top is Aunt Ester, an ex-slave and these days a mystical "soul cleanser" who is said to be 285 years old. She is watched over by young Black Mary and Eli.
Regular visitors include Solly Two Kings, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad, and the peddler Rutherford Selig (originally written as the only white person in the cast, but here played convincingly by Karamu stalwart Rodney Freeman).
However, much of the play hinges on two other characters who come knocking. One is Citizen Barlow, a young man seeking Aunt Ester's absolution for a crime he has committed. And the other is Caesar Wilkes, the older brother of Black Mary and a policeman/merchant who glories in violence and the fraud he perpetrates on other blacks in the community.
These characters are set against a tense backdrop: Black workers at the local mill are protesting the hunt for one of their own, suspected of stealing a bucket of nails. The accused man dove into the river attempting to escape and drowned, setting off the demonstrations.
Wilson skillfully weaves these elements into a compelling narrative that culminates when Aunt Ester and the others guide Citizen on a spiritual, life-changing journey to the "City of Bones."
As Aunt Ester, DeNny Averhart is a pleasant matriarch, and she manages to trigger some deftly timed chuckles. But she never exudes the mystery and shamanic intensity that her age and experience might suggest. This makes her influence on the others less understandable.
Butch Terry is also a warm presence as Solly, but the fire in his eyes that should burn from his days helping slaves escape the South is largely missing. Carrying a massive walking stick, Solly should be equally outsized and impressive, even in his rapidly approaching dotage.
The imposing Kyle Carthens is ideal physically as Citizen, and his bashful desperation at the start is affecting. However, he doesn't grow into the role, and his metamorphosis, when he ultimately takes up Solly's walking stick, feels tacked on.
Karamu's production is electrifying, however, when Cornell Hubert Calhoun III enters as Caesar. Swaggering and growling like an angry bear in a chicken coop, Calhoun is riveting as he intimidates Citizen and the others. And importantly, he personifies the vicious nature of the white power structure and the blacks who decided to mimic that pattern of behavior.
Also excellent is Lauren Nicole Sturdivant, whose Black Mary is usually obsequious but flares up when confronted by Citizen, Caesar, and even Aunt Ester herself.
Director Michael Oatman crafts many moments with skill and perception. But the critical scene, the City of Bones journey, is not staged with the imagination required to make it truly transcendent.
Painting a vast mural of African-American life in the 20th century, Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle is an epic achievement in theater. And Karamu's Gem, while not shining brightly in all respects, often glows with the intensity the playwright intended.