Aunt Ester, the Hill District, and the surreal world of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Aunt Ester, the Hill District, and the surreal world of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean

click to enlarge Aunt Ester, the Hill District, and the surreal world of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean
Photo: Jes Bogdan

Anyone familiar with August Wilson's The Pittsburgh Cycle knows about 1839 Wylie Avenue. In reality, it's a mostly vacant lot on a steep, grassy slope in the Hill District, but in the Cycle, it's nothing so ordinary. This is the home of the neighborhood spiritual healer Aunt Ester, a place where friends, family, strangers, and neighbors can find refuge, a bed and a hot meal, maybe a spiritual cleanse.

While references to Aunt Ester and 1839 Wylie are found throughout the Cycle, it's not until Wilson's Gem of The Ocean — published in 2003, set in 1904 — that Ester and the house take center stage. And so it's only fitting that Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is performing the play at the actual 1839 Wylie Avenue, with a one-room, open-air stage tenuously perched on a steep slope overlooking the Lower Hill. 

The story features Ester's caregiver Eli (Les Howard) and housekeeper Black Mary (Candace Michelle Walker); her friends Solly Two Kings (Kevin Brown) and Rutherford (Marcus Muzopappa); and Mary's menacing brother Caesar (Wali Jamal), a police officer with a mean streak. The characters (minus Caesar) have an easy chemistry that suggests a tight-knit community and many long nights spent shooting the shit in Ester's parlor. But the plot is set into motion by a new arrival called Citizen Barlow (Jonathan Berry), who's recently left his home in Alabama under shadowy circumstances. He's come to Ester for absolution, though he's not sure what that might look like.

Ester, it turns out, is 285 years old (this being 1904, that would put her birth year at 1619, a pointed year in the history of the slave trade in the U.S.). She has an all-knowing, comforting way of talking, but she's much more than a charismatic speaker. As the program explains, "Aunt Ester is the ultimate ancestor, the conduit for all the history of Black America." And it's in this context that Ester's role — inside and outside the confines of 1839 Wylie — becomes clear. Her mystical powers are vague, but the specifics don't matter. Ester has knowledge and a spirit that transcend the constraints of time and place. 

And so Ester (Chrystal Bates) takes Citizen on a spiritual journey on the slave ship the Gem of the Ocean to a watery graveyard called the City of Bones. Director Andrea Frye stages the scenes of magical realism with a light hand, letting the setting — watching characters in 1904 as modern cars whiz by below — convey the surreality on its own. Not all stories are better experienced in their literal settings, but for a piece this richly bound to and inspired by its location, the approach is incredibly powerful. The set is so effectively insular, so at odds with its surroundings, that it feels that Ester could, if she wanted, snap her fingers and detach the room from its soil and send it sailing into the sky. That doesn't happen, but what does is almost equally fantastic, unbelievable, and affecting. 

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