It’s all sublime

Gem of the Ocean

Not bad for a 285-year-old.

Not bad for a 285-year-old.


Rated 5.0

The Sacramento Theatre Company embarks on a huge, very special, highly laudable project with Gem of the Ocean—the first in a cycle of 10 connected plays by playwright August Wilson, which STC plans to stage over the coming decade.

Gem is the first in the sequence, set in 1904, in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The story features irascible old Solly Two Kings (actor Donald Lacy Jr.), who guided slaves to Canada before the Civil War, and Citizen Barlow (Hosea Simmons), a young man fresh from Alabama who’s filled with self-doubt after encountering a moral dilemma. Presiding over everything is the revered grandmatriarch Aunt Ester (Sacramento’s Lisa Lacy), who is 285 years old, by her own reckoning.

This three-hour play is a tapestry of observations about love (in young adulthood and old age), work, living under the law (even when the law is unjust) and self-respect—among other topics.

But slavery underlies everything—you can feel the playwright putting that big, dangerous issue into context as he initiates his cycle. Citizen Barlow’s harrowing metaphorical voyage to the City of Bones (in the second act) is a mysterious and absorbing merger of Wilson’s writing and stagecraft by director Darryl V. Jones. The immediate crisis that follows closes the play—and opens the way for the series—with a jolt.