Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean
By August Wilson
Directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke
Starring Mark V. Harriott, Belinda Boyd, Andrew Tarver and Michael Sapp
Seminole State College, Lake Mary FL.

Welcome to the first installment of August Wilsons’s epic Pittsburg Cycle, a retelling of the American Black Experience. Tonight we are in Pittsburg in 1904; black folks are sneaking out of the south where emancipation wasn’t so much liberation but just a transition to a more subtle form of forced labor. There’s work up north, The Mill needs hands but the labor supply is so overwhelming that the pay works out to be slightly negative dollars per hour. At the Tyler house we meet 285 year old Aunt Ester (Boyd). She came across on the slave ships and embraces the Bible as well as the old African rituals. Various friends and relatives live with her or drop by to visit: Solly Two Kings (Tarver) worked the Underground Railroad and scouted for the Union army, Black Mary (Michelle Andino) keeps house under the heavy thumb of Ester, she’s been through a dozen men and hasn’t got one to stick yet. Caesar Wilkes (Sapp) is climbing up the white man’s world, he owns slums and carries both a gun and a badge and loves the law. Into this powder keg come young Citizen Barlow (Harriott), he’s just walked up from Alabama and is willing to work but feels he deserves enough money to eat on a daily basis. He needs his soul washed, and that’s where Ester comes in – everyone believes she holds supernatural powers (and she is Biblically old) but she knows Barlow’s “washing” is only a ceremony to push him in a direction he must find on his own.

Wilson effectively uses stereotypes to tell his story, after all there a there’s a thread of truth in all of them. Boyd’s Ester is the strong no nonsense mother figure who implements tough love and skepticism as needed. Barlow is the superstitious hick but he finds a cause that will still flare after his life is gone. He’s loveable and naïve but you sense he has the right sprit to makes something of himself. Solly is the most interesting, he’s not afraid to walk back into the heart of southern darkness to save his sister and walk her all the way back to Pennsylvania. Wilkes is brutal, and his brutality is the realpolitik of the era – whites will never accept him as equal, but they will allow him to profit if helps them exploit the naivety and powerlessness of the migrating hoards.

This is a sharply executes production on a glorious rambling set – The Tyler house seems enormous, and there’s no sense of the claustrophobia endemic to the crowed housing of the era. The heart of this story follow s Barlow to the City of Bones, it’s a shamanistic journey to an Africa that no one had experienced in generations. It shows that there are roots reaching beyond and existing before the journey to the New World, and that pride and justice are not inconceivable – they are just very far away.

For more information on the Seminole State College Theater program, please visit

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