By Samuel Still, Staff Writer-
The pain of memory and the struggles of identity and community are on full display in the Chattanooga Theatre Centre’s [CTC] production of August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean.
Beginning with their production of Wilson’s play Fences in 2019, the Theatre Centre made a promise to perform one play every year until 2028 from Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays that each focus on the African-American experience through a decade of the 20th century.
Gem of the Ocean, the chronologically-first play in Wilson’s cycle, is set in Pittsburgh in 1904, where the first generation of African-Americans live free from slavery, but come to learn that just because one has freedom it does not mean that one is truly free. While the younger generation must find their way in society, the history of bondage still haunts the elders of the community who remember what is like to be considered property.
The play is set in the home of Aunt Ester Tyler, a 285-year-old woman with a fiery spirit who is well known for her ability to cleanse souls. She serves as a spiritual guide who leads troubled people to the mythical City of Bones where they can wash themselves of their problems.
The journey to the City of Bones, as depicted in the play, is one of the most mesmerizing and powerful moments in theatre and is not something that will be easily forgotten.
Audience member Nicole Brown said, “I felt like I was going through [the City of Bones] with them.”
Part of what makes the City of Bones scene so impactful is the directing of the sequence by Sadiqua Iman, the first black woman to direct a play at the CTC. Her stylistic decisions help elevate the scene and are an open embrace of the spirituality she celebrates in her own life.
“I loved the idea of working on a show that touched on African spirituality through an African-American perspective.” Iman said, “As an African spiritualist myself, this homage to elders and community felt like home.”
Directing decisions aside, what truly stands out about Gem of the Ocean is the performances by the cast. Each character is performed by their respective actor with great charisma and personality that demands the audience’s attention, especially the performance of Aunt Ester by Kimberly Reynolds.
Reynolds has a commanding presence as Ester that stands out amongst the other talented actors. At times she plays Ester as a grandmotherly figure who cares for others but can be stern when needed, and other times she plays Ester with great bravado as she describes the history and spirituality of African-Americans while guiding lost souls to the City of Bones.
Gem of the Ocean is a unique, haunting, and emotive performance of an American theatre classic that is a must see for anyone looking for an experience unlike any other. Those that attend will be treated to a spectacular performance by talented artists and will get to witness an illuminating insight into the history and legacy of African-American culture.
As Nicole Brown said after watching the play, “That was something that everybody should witness.”
Gem of the Ocean will run through Feb. 9, and future programming will be announced through the CTC’s website, their social media and their newsletter. Tickets can be purchased on the Theatre Centre’s website for $23 for students or $25 for general admissions.