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‘Gem of the Ocean’ at South Coast Rep: August Wilson provides ritual healing in a devastating revival

“Gem of the Ocean” may not rank at the top of August Wilson’s plays, but anyone doubting the soul-shaking power of this drama should brave Orange County traffic to see this wrenching new revival at South Coast Repertory.

Many will remember the 2003 Mark Taper Forum production that moved the following year to Broadway (where I first saw it), earning Phylicia Rashad a Tony nomination for her seismic performance as Aunt Ester, the former slave who is making the most of her freedom as a gatherer of strays and cleanser of souls. L. Scott Caldwell is just as memorable in the role, which she makes completely her own in Kent Gash’s folksier staging.

As with nearly all the works in the playwright’s 10-play cycle, “Gem of the Ocean” is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The year is 1904. The play was written after the indisputable masterpieces “Fences” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” but it occupies the first slot in Wilson’s decade-by-decade exploration of 20th century African American life.

Slavery is still a living memory for the characters. Solly Two Kings (the astounding Cleavant Derricks), Ester’s devoted suitor, carries with him a piece of the chain that used to be around his ankle. A former Underground Railroad conductor, he is looked down upon by some for peddling fertilizer he obtains by picking up after dogs, but he carries himself with the ferocious dignity of a freedom fighter.