Review: “Gem of the Ocean” shines

I’ve always thought of the new Guthrie Theater, with its waiting lounges and glowing directionals, like an airport: where do I want to go today? In the case of the two shows currently on stage at the theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gem of the Ocean, you’re going to similarly magical places–realms only the theater can offer in full immersion, where the spiritual and pragmatic dramatically converge to explain our otherwise ineffable humanity. You’re going deep. Damn, it’s good to be a Minnesotan.

Gem of the Ocean, staged at the Guthrie by Penumbra Theatre, is the first work (chronologically speaking) in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle about 20th Century African-American life (though it was actually written late in the cycle, near the end of Wilson’s life). Penumbra chose to launch its own cycle of Wilson’s plays this winter with The Piano, which, in retrospect, appears to be a smart move. That play is more straightforward, and touches on slavery without explicating the later complications of Reconstruction: a way to ease into these issues. Gem goes for it all. And at times it can feel like Wilson has bitten off more than he can chew: how an oppressed people, spiritually and literally severed from their homeland, can make themselves whole. And yet, at around three hours, this production gives these issues the proper amount of weight, without weighing you down.

Set in 1904, the play bridges African tribal cosmology and Christian beliefs, details the de-facto slavery that followed slavery, and illuminates the resilience of a people determined not to drown though their heads are held under. It offers symbolism both provocative and subtle (Gem of the Ocean is a sly reference to a patriotic song, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” popular during the Lincoln years). Yet the brilliance of this staging is in how it brings personal relationships to the fore, and underscores Wilson’s surprising humor. It helps that the cast is as solid as it gets. They get it. And they make sure, despite all the layers here, that you do, too.