Nyazia Martin & Tajleed Hardy in Gem of the Ocean. Photo: Tom Fougerousse for the University of Louisville

Gem of the Ocean

By August Wilson
Directed by Shona Tucker

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Although the ninth play produced, chronologically, Gem of the Ocean is the first installment of the great August Wilson’s decade-by-decade, ten-play chronicle, The Pittsburgh Cycle, dramatizing the African-American experience in the twentieth century.

I am hungry for these plays. Fences is probably produced most often, with The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom running close 2nd and 3rd. There are also film versions of those three, and I have heard tell that Denzel Washington has the rights to produce films of all ten if he can find the time. He has already made Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I have seen Ma Rainey and Seven Guitars at Actors Theatre. Still, fortunately, I have had the African American Theatre Program at the University of Louisville’s Department of Theatre to bring The Piano Lesson, Fences, and King Hedley II in my time reviewing, and now Gem of the Ocean puts me past the halfway point. 

Aunt Ester (Nyazia Martin) is an elderly woman who “washes” people’s souls. That magical power remains a mystery for most of the play, but Ester’s enigmatic personality points to her being an “Elder”; for African Americans a person who connects them with their ancestors.

She lives in the Hill District of Pittsburgh with Black Mary (Krystal Waller) and Eli (Taijee), who are caretakers with an unspoken devotion to the old woman. Her age is never spoken of in the play, but promotional materials for Gem have always specified that Ester is 234 years old. If not immortal, her life spans most of the history of slavery in the United States. Ester is a child of the first generation of slaves brought from Africa.

Citizen Barlow (Tajleed Hardy) is desperate to have his soul tended to by Ester, and her mentorship is quixotic yet authoritative. Solly Two Kings (Michael Joseph Barber) is a family friend and sort of paramour for Ester who stalks the stage like an Old Testament prophet (a recurring figure in August Wilson). Mary’s brother, Caesar (Nicolas Wills) is a mercenary-hearted civic officer who is unyielding in his hard, bitter attitude. The ensemble is rounded out by Selig (Robert McFarland), a white peddler and fixture in the predominantly Black Hill District.

Selig becomes important in Act Two when conflict becomes criminal and the stakes rise exponentially. Wilson depicts Aunt Ester’s power in vivid terms, and you can decide for yourself how sacred it is. Yet, however profound, what degree of salvation or rescue it allows may be a debatable point. The lives of these characters are difficult enough that we see them all as somewhat indomitable. 

This ensemble is strong. Of course, Aunt Ester is a great role, and Nyazia Martin eschews elaborate old-age makeup in favor of finding the woman beneath the legend. She keeps the character grounded instead of allowing her to become a fantasy. Tajleed Hardy beautifully traverses the journey between callow, panicked youth and the maturity of a man who has confronted his sins.

Michael Joseph Barber is a force of energy as Solly and Taijee occupies solid ground as Eli, but Nicholas Wills is so sharp and acerbic as Caesar that he almost demands your sympathy and understanding for his vision of Negro Power within the System. Almost. Krystal Waller is a slow fuse burning as Black Betty, so powerful is her baleful glare. Aunt Ester may be the main character, but it often feels like it is Betty’s play.

Robert McFarland is good as Selig, but he is the one character who struggles to be more than a plot device. However collegial his interactions with the others, the fact that he is a White man with a means of transportation is invaluable to Wilson’s resolution.

Wilson injects some discussion of labor union organizing, a nascent movement in 1904, yet the conversation sounds familiar, having peaked in the 1920s and ’30s and it still resonates in the fractious social conflicts of 2024, as does the response of protest.

I cannot recommend this Gem of the Ocean enough if no other reason than the odds are it will be a good while before this text graces another Louisville stage. I’m happy to report that the quality of the production overall, and the playing from this energized ensemble in particular, are other good reasons.

Featuring Michael Joseph Barber, Tajleed Hardy, Nyazia Martin, Robert McFarland, Taijee, Krystal Waller, & Nicholas Wills 

Gem of the Ocean

February 23, 24, March 1, & 2 @ 7:30 pm
February 25 & March 3 @ 3:00 pm

University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
African American Theatre Program
U of L Playhouse
1911 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40292

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.