You should see ‘Gem of the Ocean’ at the Detroit Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s modern-classic finally gets its professional Michigan premier in this jewel of a production

Feb 2, 2023 at 2:18 pm
click to enlarge jøn kent (left) as Citizen Barlow and Madelyn Porter (right) as Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean. - Courtesy of Detroit Repertory Theatre
Courtesy of Detroit Repertory Theatre
jøn kent (left) as Citizen Barlow and Madelyn Porter (right) as Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean.

In the center of the world lies a city made entirely of bones. Here, you can get your soul washed, as long as you’re willing to confront your past and admit your wrongdoings.

It’s 1904 in Philadelphia in August Wilson’s Black American classic play Gem of the Ocean, where a young man named Citizen Barlow has come up from Alabama to get right with himself. He’s been told Aunt Ester, a curious 285-year-old healer, can “wash” his soul so he can start the new life he’s desperately searching for.

While staying in her home, he meets Aunt Ester’s protégé Black Mary, Solly Two Kings, and Eli, who helped enslaved people escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad, as well as a white ally named Selig. But the cleansing he’s expecting from Aunt Ester isn’t simple. He must ride a boat, The Gem of the Ocean, to the City of Bones where the inhabitants’ mouths are on fire with song.

The play is being put on by the Detroit Repertory Theatre through March 5. Surprisingly, for a play written in 2003 by one of Black America’s most celebrated playwrights, this production marks Gem’s Michigan professional debut.

Madelyn Porter shines as Aunt Ester. She is Aunt Ester — a brilliant elderly woman who doesn’t look almost 300 years old, but whose presence feels ancient and otherworldly. She’s like a sage, who makes us believe she really can wash Citizen Barlow’s soul, and ours too.

Hugh M. Duneghy II is a natural as Eli, whose cool and collected manner warms the stage, and David W. Skillman embodies Solly as a captivating storyteller.

These are theater veterans with a combined experience of over 40 years.

The only small dimmer on the opening night of the play was Domonique Byrd’s tendency to overact. Byrd made her professional acting debut as Black Mary, whose sometimes obedient demeanor can get washed out in the play.

It felt like Byrd overcompensated instead of leaning into Black Mary’s strength — her mysterious and collected nature.

In Byrd’s defense, performing alongside such well-seasoned actors can expose even the tiniest flaws. But we’re excited to see how this young actor and recent graduate of the Rep’s Actors Workshop will grow.

Having such exceptional writing to work with can either be an easy job or make it easier to let down audiences who are familiar with the work and have high expectations. But the actors in this production bring an unexpected sense of humor to the stage.

When Black Mary finally stands up to Aunt Ester’s nagging hypercriticism of her every move, the old lady retorts, “What took you so long?” In the book, it felt like a beautiful moment of blossoming for Black Mary that Aunt Ester in her all-knowing wisdom had been waiting for all along. At the Rep, Porter delivers the line with a quirkiness that makes the audience laugh.

There are several subtle (and some not-so-subtle) lessons to learn from this sensational piece of theater.

The characters are trying to navigate a post-slavery world that still feels like enslavement. Black workers are being exploited at the local mill with low wages and long hours while an Uncle Tom police officer named Caesar (who’s also Black Mary’s brother) evicts tenants from his boarding house with zero regard for their humanity.

We’ve heard this story before, and are still hearing it today.

Whether Aunt Ester actually has any spiritual healing powers depends on what you believe. Is her power to guide people into the spirit realm or to help them realize no one can heal them but themselves?

In another humorous moment that could have been played straight while delivering this message, Aunt Ester gives Citizen an origami “boat” that will take him to the City of Bones. When she asks, “Do you believe you can ride this boat to the City of Bones?”, jøn kent, who plays Citizen Barlow, says, “This is just a piece of paper.”

It is. So is money, but that doesn’t stop us from attaching meaning and power to it. This idea of assigning and releasing meaning to something as simple as a piece of paper recurs in the play. When Caesar, played by Dan Johnson, comes to arrest Aunt Ester for harboring fugitives, she tells him his arrest warrant is worthless because it’s also just paper, the same as the bill of sale for her as a young girl when she was a slave.

Things only have true power and meaning if we allow them.

Also, if you go see the show, (and you should) don’t be that jerk who doesn’t turn their phone off despite signs literally everywhere telling you to do so.

Gem of the Ocean is on at the Detroit Repertory Theatre until March 5. For more info and tickets, see detroitreptheatre.com.

Location Details

Detroit Repertory Theater

13103 Woodrow Wilson Street, Detroit

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