August Wilson once said he preferred to write plays instead of books because "plays don't need as many words." He made that remark in the early days of his success, but as he progressed in his 10-play cycle, the words multiplied to the extent that some of his works resembled a short novel.
"Gem of the Ocean" is one of those relentlessly wordy plays, full of the familiar, occasionally fatiguing Wilson monologues that threaten to overwhelm the naturalistic conversations that made his work sparkle. When the playwright would gather several African-American men together, the repartee is among the funniest and wisest in American theater.
Staging this three-hour (at least) epic can be a challenge for a small group such as Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, headed by Mark Clayton Southers, who has fearlessly taken on this giant play with its urgent message of honoring your past while searching for a better future.
The recurring character of Aunt Ester Tyler is at the center of "Gem of the Ocean," set in her house at 1839 Wylie Ave., the Hill District. She's Wilson's voice of African-American history, 285 years old in 1904, a living witness to the Middle Passage. Chrystal Bates imbues the difficult role with feistiness and compassion, holding our attention amid several other fine performances:
Kevin Brown as Eli, Ester's primary caretaker (at 285, you need a little assistance); Alan Bomar Jones as Solly Two Kings, a pugnacious survivor of slavery and a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad; and Jonathan Berry, a compelling Citizen Barlow, a young man in trouble who seeks Aunt Ester's solace.
Kim El plays Black Mary, a lost soul taken in by Ester who shows a gentle kindness to Barlow's romancing, and David Crawford is the white outsider, a traveling peddler who respects rather than denigrates his black friends.
Finally, there's the troubling character of Caesar Wilkes, Wilson's example of the "new Negro" who lords over his neighbors at the sufferance of the white man as he enforces the law with a brutal sense of right and wrong. Veteran Wali Jamal lends a fierce righteousness to the role but now and then allows Wilkes' anger to fall into a melodramatic mustache-twirling villain.
"Gem of the Ocean" culminates in the remarkable "city of bones" journey taken by Barlow with Aunt Ester as tour guide. It's a harrowing trip to the ocean floor and the fantasy of a horrific city built from the bones of slaves who didn't survive the Middle Passage. Mr. Southers and his talented crew pull off this feat of theatrical magic effectively despite the limitations of the tightly packed third-floor space above Liberty Avenue.
The play's title comes from the name of the symbolic slave ship that Aunt Ester constructs out of the paper that sends the Wylie Avenue cast on its revelatory voyage to hell and back. The play itself reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the playwright -- powerful and rhythmic in its language, awkward and rushed in its plot. After more than three hours, too much has to happen to wind the show up, and in their efforts to perform the physical actions on the crowded stage, this cast was bumping into each other and knocking down props on opening night.
The powerful images and heartfelt performances linger after the long night is over. In a comparison between this shoestring-budget production and the Pittsburgh Public Theater's beautifully mounted version in 2006, Mr. Souther's play is warmer and more realistic than the more formal '06 effort.
A word of advice: The theater can be reached only by a very slow elevator, which also provides the only access to the restrooms before the play begins, so plan accordingly. The stairs are open to the facilities during intermission and at the play's end.
Bob Hoover: email@example.com. First Published June 6, 2012 4:00 AM