Every talented author is entitled to the occasional clinker. August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is a big, bustling mess, supposed to represent the 1900s in Wilson’s decade-by-decade chronicle of African-American life in the past century. Here he crowds too much into 1904: the aftermath of slavery and the Civil War, crossing the ocean in slave ships, the Underground Railroad, a kind of Christian-voodoo exorcism ritual, and a somewhat Oz-like City of Bones.
The two-and-a-half-hour play, cut down from three, bristles with gnomic utterances, mostly disbursed by Aunt Ester, a clairvoyant and faith healer pushing 300, who says things like “Sometimes it’s hard to tell bad luck from good luck but then sometimes it’s easy.” Sometimes, too, it’s hard to tell mysticism from mumbo-jumbo, as in her pronouncements on a little paper boat: “There’s a lot of power in that boat. Power is something. It’s hard to control but it’s hard to stand in the way of it. God sweep the stars aside, Mr. Citizen.” That refers to Citizen Barlow, who wants his soul washed after he’s let another man die for one of his crimes. There is also the philosophical bum Solly Two Kings; a black lawman, part Uncle Tom, part Simon Legree; and much arcane rhetoric, which the cast under Kenny Leon’s goosing direction delivers at a breakneck speed that impedes comprehension. The cast, led by Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, does everything possible, but Jitney or Fences this is not.