Arts Listings

Arts: ACT Performs August Wilson’s ‘Gem’ By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday March 03, 2006

The Gem of the Ocean, the next-to-last play August Wilson wrote, is finishing a run at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater this coming weekend. 

The play is the first in his cycle of a century of black American life, completed with the premiere of Radio Golf shortly before Wilson died last fall at 60.  

Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who played in the Broadway production, a fine cast from both the co-producing McCarter Theatre at Princeton and ACT’s core troupe acts out a moment early in the last century, in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, when “you could walk around and find people who were slaves. I find that incredible.” 

Things in Pittsburgh aren’t so good. There’s unrest at the mill where many black people work. Accused of stealing a bucket of nails, a black worker denies it, fleeing into the river, where he dies. Later, at the climactic moment of the play, the mill will be set afire. 

The first half of this long play (Wilson once joked, as he lengthened an early play, “If it’s 90 minutes, no one’ll know it’s mine!”) meanders with the rhythms of old saws and Biblical homilies and pointed phrases. 

These recurring moments become eddies in the stream of dialogue that establishes plot and character, a texture of speech and meaning that give some credence to Wilson’s old claim that he’s first of all a poet. The second act is more ambitious, with the epiphantic ritual and further revelations and confrontations. Eager to teach the moral lessons of the past, Wilson ends up overdetermining the story and characters, constantly pinning down meaning schematically, to the exclusion of irony.  

Yet he leaves much of importance vague, fuzzy rather than ambiguous. 

Theater mimics the repetition of both sacred rituals and daily life, a dramatic action to re-enact origins, or recover personal and social history—in either case, for us to see the genesis of life’s situations in language and action, rather than in a pre-set scheme of things. 

As a late work, Gem of the Ocean shows a strain of resistance to the relentless linearity of plot, with the backwash of folk language and freestanding statement making a rhythm that syncopates the metronomic beat of a progressive history. Little repeated words and moments are more revelatory than monuments and murals; they sensitize an audience to what’s between the words, the paradox of poetry: what can’t be said. 

It all makes Wilson’s untimely loss more sharply felt. He had spoken of going off in new directions, once his epic cycle was complete. Who knows what lyricism of character and dialogue might have been freed from the dense layers of epic? 

ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff remembers August Wilson with the last words of Gem: “So live.” 



ACT presents Gem of the Ocean through March 12 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. For more information, call 415-749-2ACT or see