"This is a peaceful house," says a character in August Wilson's transcendent "Gem of the Ocean" at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Despite his welcoming words, he opens the door ever so cautiously, for this is 1904 and the Pittsburgh home is both oasis and fortress. Chronologically first in the playwright's 10-play, 10-decade cycle, "Gem" sets the stage for Wilson's lyrical, frightening chronicles of the black experience in 20th-century America.
Although slavery as the basis for future woes is the subtext underlining every play in the cycle, in "Gem" it is given blazing, unforgettable life through a stunning second-act ritual summation. Here, under the tutelage of the clairvoyant 287-year-old Aunt Ester, the guilt-ridden Citizen Barlow re-enacts the stinking horrors of slave ships and slavery itself, finding future redemption and courage in past humiliations.
"Gem" is rich and complex, invoking the basic elements of water, fire, earth, and air to tell of oppressed characters who seek the freedom that is everyone's right. Although it has several climaxes, and a few pat pieces of symbolism, its power is undeniable.
As Aunt Ester, Phylicia Rashad is memorable as the inspiration not only of "Gem," but the plays to come. Her voice rising to biblical heights even as her movements shuffle and her hands betray her great age, Rashad dominates the evening.
John Earl Jelks makes an impressive Broadway debut as the troubled then defiant Citizen Barlow. Anthony Chisholm gives a fierce performance as the rebellious Solly Two Kings, while Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Caesar is spiky and unyielding. Raynor Scheine's sympathetic Rutherford Selig, LisaGay Hamilton's steely Black Mary, and Eugene Lee's soulful Eli round out an excellent ensemble.
Director Kenny Leon deftly reconciles the script's realism and fantasy, helped especially by Donald Holder's lighting. David Gallo's oppressive set, Constanza Romero's period costumes, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design create an atmosphere at once dank and hopeful.