‘Gem of the Ocean’: An argument based on character

Vin Shambry and Brenda Phillips in "Gem of the Ocean"/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

We talk about freedom in lots of ways, don’t we? The Occupy Portland/Occupy Wall Street  protesters, for example, are suggesting to us that we are less free because giant financial institutions and other corporations have a disproportionate influence over our government: They limit and “manage” our freedom.

This past weekend I saw Artists Repertory Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” and I saw that play partly as a meditation on something I’d call existential freedom: To what extent do we have the capacity as humans to be free?  And I saw Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Petrouchka,” which suggested that freedom is within us, waiting to surface, and that it is connected to love — again a sort of existential argument.

Freedom is at the core of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” too, which Portland Playhouse opened last Saturday at the World Trade Center. And yes, how we as humans understand our own freedom is an important part of it. But the occasion for this discussion isn’t an abstract self-analysis or a measurement of degrees. The opposite of the freedom in “Gem of the Ocean” isn’t lack of enlightenment.

It’s slavery. Real slavery. And that gives an edge to the argument, to the characters attempting to find themselves, to our understanding of what profound effects actual slavery in American must have had, even 40 years after the Civil War. And then, when you think about it, even now.

Displaced temporarily from its home in a church on NE Prescott St. by a zoning/parking dispute, Portland Playhouse moved “Gem of the Ocean,” to the plusher digs of the World Trade Center. That’s too bad, because Wilson’s intimate story would have played better in the church, where the company has staged two previous plays in Wilson’s great 10-play history cycle. And it has unfortunate connections: World trade in the Atlantic basin used to involve rum, sugar, cotton, tobacco and… slaves. In fact, the center of “Gem of the Ocean” is a seance of sorts, conducted by the ageless Aunt Esther, that involves the Middle Passage and the slave ships ferrying Africans to the Americas.

Briefly summarized, the play is set in Pittsburgh in 1904. Citizen Barlow (Vin Shambry), a young recent escapee from the Jim Crow laws of Alabama, has landed in town a few weeks before, just in time to get himself in trouble, possibly legal trouble but definitely psychological trouble. He seeks out Aunt Esther (Brenda E. Phillips) for help and lands in the tug-of-war between Caesar Wilks (Kevin Jones), the boss of the neighborhood, and his sister Black Mary (Andrea White), who lives with Aunt Ester along with Eli (Victor Mack), who used to help slaves escape to Canada before the Civil War. Solly Two Kings (Kevyn Morrow) is a genial man living at the margins of even the marginal African-American community of Pittsburgh, an old comrade of Eli’s and an enemy of Wilks. The narrative starts with a false accusation at the local mill, which basically enslaves its workers with a secret system of debt enforced by the law and Wilks. And it ends with destruction of that mill. In between the characters attempt to find some redemption, some real freedom.

A lot of the discussion involves slavery, one way or another. Were we better off as slaves? Is our condition now the same as slavery? What did we gain and what did we lose after slavery ended? What is the course forward from here? Wilson’s genius is to land us in the middle of those arguments, to feel the weight of them, to understand the poverty and the different sort of coercion that generates them. And the difficulty in figuring out the answer to that last one: Where do we go from here?

I saw the production at an inopportune time, the Sunday matinee after the Saturday night opening, and it wasn’t particularly sharp. Some lines were thrown and maybe because of that a good rhythm never emerged. I’d guess that Saturday night’s premiere ran five or ten minutes faster on the wave of opening night excitement.

But that didn’t really spoil the effect, strangely, because the actors are all believable, even powerful in their roles, which makes sense because they all have great credits, often in Wilson plays. Kevin Jones, for example, excelled in Portland Playhouse’s production of “Radio Golf” and directed the company’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” last year. Phillips is practically a force of nature. Morrow, especially fine as Solly Two Kings, has appeared on Broadway and on London’s West End… I could go on: White appeared in both previous Portland Playhouse Wilson productions and has won two Drammy awards. I loved Vin Shambry in “Superior Donuts” at Artists Rep last year and he won a boatload of Drammy awards himself. So has Victor Mack, who scored in “Ma Rainey” last year, and David Seitz, who plays a peddler, is an accomplished actor, too.

So, yes, a great cast. If you saw Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s fine version of this play a few seasons ago, you won’t be let down by these actors telling this story by this playwright. At least I wasn’t, even when they weren’t at their best.

Let’s get back to freedom for a moment? I rattled off that series of questions, any one of which can take you back to fundamental ground, especially when you consider them in the context of African American experience in 1904. The end of slavery did not mean the end of discrimination, let alone the end of misery. It’s understandable to think that if I’m free and miserable now, then freedom isn’t worth very much and maybe I should re-consider that whole slavery option.

Solly Two Kings makes the most impassioned speech against that position, though it’s an assertion not an argument, really. Why is it persuasive? Because Solly as a human is persuasive — tough, compassionate, self-sufficient, caring. The proof isn’t an elaborate argument or historical description, it’s in the content of his character. Should Solly be free? Of course. Should we discriminate against Solly? Of course not. Why? Because it limits our own freedom if we don’t meet him on equal ground — and go on from there.

The greatness of Wilson’s cycle lies in its ability to make this argument from character. His argument for freedom hinges upon great men and women, people we never knew, exercising freedom in difficult circumstances and in an exemplary way. Freedom requires strength of character, and Wilson gives us some idea what this strength looks like, not abstractly but in the form of people in action.

And by doing this, he convinces us that limiting the freedom of others is a mistake for us, too, not just because of the abstract idea that freedom limited for one can be freedom limited for all, but because of the rich vein of experience it closes to us.  We want the Aunt Esthers of the world in our lives, too.

The state’s largest newspaper today called for a possibly violent conclusion to a non-violent assembly of Americans expressing their opinion about the state of our democracy.  And when I read that editorial, I thought of Solly Two Kings and Aunt Esther. You really want to put them in jail, crack the billy club against their heads? That somehow increases your happiness at the newspaper, enlarges our freedom as a people?  And isn’t freedom important to you? At least a little? I’ll let it go at that.

2 Responses.

  1. Adele White says:

    You did an excellent job of articulating the important points in “Gem of the Ocean”. I’ve seen it twice, and I’m returning again this weekend. The rhythm was stronger the week after opening. It hasn’t really been so long since slavery was abolished,and I applaud the actors for going to the depths of their souls to share August Wilson’s brilliant truths. Thank you for taking the time to write this article and think through these difficult questions for your readers to ponder.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I was pretty sure that I was seeing the show on its worst day — it seems so hard to carry that momentum from opening night to the matinee the next afternoon — so I’m glad to hear that they recovered. And thank you so much for the kind words. August Wilson is SO much fun to think about!

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