Memories of slavery are very much alive for Aunt Ester (Lillias White) and… (Daniel G. Lam )
“What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?” demands the superb Anthony J. Haney as former Underground Railroad conductor Solly Two Kings in an early defining moment of Rubicon Theatre’s solid and at times soul-stirring revival of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.”
No dramatist has explored the burdens of freedom in greater depth than Wilson, whose epic 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” portraying the struggles and unfulfilled dreams of African Americans in each decade of the last century stands as a towering landmark in American theater. Though completed late in Wilson’s life, “Gem” falls chronologically first in the series, sounding an overture of sorts to his recurring themes --oppression, isolation, resilience and the pursuit of personal integrity amid rampant corruption and compromised values -- rendered with considerable power and eloquence in James O’Neil’s staging.
The drama’s 1904 setting is also historically closest to the convulsive end of slavery that, far from redeeming our nation’s original sin, begot the intractable problems and challenges facing each generation of blacks in Wilson’s cycle. Here, the literal and metaphorical shackles of captivity remain living memories for Solly, who once shepherded runaway slaves to freedom, and for the quasi-mystical Aunt Ester (Lillias White), a 285-year-old spiritual healer and repository for collective racial memories stretching back to the first ships that delivered her people into bondage.
In the imaginatively staged, harrowing second act ritual combining gospel, voodoo and shamanistic elements, Aunt Ester and her cohorts guide a troubled young black man (Keith Arthur) on a “soul washing” journey aboard the mythical slave ship Gem of the Ocean.
The overt magical realism, as well as numerous soul-baring interior monologues, are a striking, even bewildering, departure from the naturalistic style of Wilson’s other plays, but they’re brilliantly used for a core message that transcends race, time and culture: To truly know ourselves, we must understand where we’ve come from; only then can we begin to move forward in freedom.
Facing this truth isn’t easy -- it’s so painful for local constable Caesar Wilks (Chris Butler) that he’s negated his own black origins and embraced dehumanized mercenary greed, to the point of questioning whether the end of slavery was a good thing.
Among the capable cast, Haney and Butler shine in their uniquely memorable respective portrayals of Solly’s slow-smoldering defiance against injustice and Caesar’s zealous rationalization of the rule of law. Not coincidentally, the societal and political conflicts they represent are the most hard-hitting aspects of this revival.
“Gem of the Ocean,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 10. $25-$54. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 3 hours.