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Gem of the Ocean

  • Theater, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The 1900s installment of August Wilson's 10-play cycle isn't its crown jewel, but Court's production is packed with strong performances.

The Goodman Theatre kicks off 2022 with a revival of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, which launched the playwright's “American Century Cycle”—10 plays set in each decade of the 20th century that chronicle the African American experience. Set in Pittsburgh at the dawn of the 1900s, this play introduces the character of Aunt Ester (Lisa Gaye Dixon), a keeper of African American history who acts as a throughline in the cycle's plays. Before and after the show, guests will be able to shop at “Hidden Gems: A Celebration of African American Artists & Art,” a pop-up market featuring handmade items.


Court Theatre returns to the work of August Wilson, with Ron OJ Parson helming the earliest-set play in the writer’s Century Cycle. It’s Parson’s 22nd Wilson production overall, and it’s hard to imagine any director having a deeper, more lived-in knowledge of a playwright’s oeuvre.

Set in Pittsburgh in the first decade of the 20th century, Gem of the Ocean introduces Aunt Ester (Jacqueline Williams), the sage and ancient mystic who becomes a recurring figure as Wilson’s plays progress through the century. (Though Gem is the only play in which Ester appears onstage, her offstage presence looms large in several others.) Here, she assists a young man named Citizen Barlow (Jerod Haynes), a recent transplant from Alabama who’s wracked with guilt and desperate to “get his soul washed.”

With slavery still in the not-distant-enough memories of many of the characters here, Wilson provides much opportunity to reflect on the nature of freedom, opportunity and responsibility. Sometimes the metaphors get metaphysical, as in the centerpiece of the second act, when Aunt Ester and friends send Citizen on a spiritual journey “sailing” on a boat folded from Ester’s own bill of sale into slavery.

Still, the always delightful Williams is equal parts wry, warm and wise as Ester, and surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast including the likes of A.C. Smith, Alfred H. Wilson and Tyla Abercrumbie. And Haynes, following his recent work in Native Son, The Royale and A Raisin in the Sun, continues to prove one of Chicago’s most compelling young leading men.

Court Theatre. By August Wilson. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. With Jacqueline Williams, Jerod Haynes. Running time: 2hrs 50mins; one intermission.

Written by
Kris Vire


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