Thursday, March 29, 2012


In the play of the same name, the ‘Gem Of The Ocean’ is a ‘ship’ that one may take on a journey to redemption, traveling through the reality of ancestors that have gone before.  Director, Mark Clayton Southers has shown us a window on this world with the most skillful direction of August Wilson’s play that takes us to an American past we are in danger of forgetting.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, August Wilson, has achieved a monumental task by creating a ten cycle series of plays that chronicles African American life throughout the 20th Century.  Gem of the Ocean is the first in this cycle giving us a transom to the first decade in the 1900’s.

The story’s center is an African American home in 1904 Pittsburgh, when slavery was still part of current memory, where sanctuary and the meaning of freedom were still central subjects of daily life, and when discussions of the distribution of power and money where not that different than today.  Wilson’s play is a tapestry of metaphor, allegory and hard cold reality woven in manner that keeps us watching and thinking about what comes next and what it means.  What is enchanting about this experience is how Wilson and Southers transport us back in time and move us seamlessly from the daily reality of this 1904 Pittsburgh home, peppered with delicious and meticulous stories, to the lyrical and spiritual experience of the grand life guide that is former slave, Aunt Ester.  She is 285 years of memory that has the power to anchor who we are and where we go as we struggle to find our way into the 20th century.  And this journey is powerful, and dare I say delightful.

There is not a weak link in the cast.  Dwandra Nickole brings to life Aunt Ester Tyler in a rich and rock-solid performance of the story’s clever spiritual guide.  Young actors should watch and learn from this performance.  Alan Bomar Jones presents us the quality that we have come to expect with his endearing and solid performance of Solly Two Kings.  Kevin Brown (Eli), Jonathan Berry (Citizen) and Bryant Bentley (Caesar), all talented actors, each give us grounded performances that are true to the playwright and this important work.

Marva Williams' performance as Black Mary is singular in this production as she provides us an emotional truth and unyielding connection to the turn of the century reality which has long escaped our memory.  Watch for her in the future, as she is a skilled actress to follow.  Scott Stoney plays Rutherford Selig, and once again makes us marvel at his complete immersion into character.  The simple truth of his work brings us into the story, as we have all known a hard-working, good-hearted, salesman with the gift of gab and a heart to match.

The Human Race Theatre has twice before presented us the work of August Wilson.  Each time has been a significant artistic event for our community.  This presentation is no less important.  Take sanctuary for an evening.  Make this journey with these artists to a place that has past us by but should not be forgotten.  It’s quite something to see.

(August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN. Produced by The Human Race Theatre Company. March 29 - April 15, 2012 at The Loft Theatre)

Monday, March 19, 2012


As I was going to St. Ives, I had a show with several lives.  That may be the refrain that Director Greg Smith might pronounce at the end of the run of the play Going to St. Ives by Lee Blessing currently at the Dayton Theatre Guild.

Live theatre is often about surprises.  Sometimes the surprises are those one can do without and others are those one can never envision, onstage and off.  The production of Going to St. Ives, currently at the Dayton Theatre Guild presents for you exactly what playwright Lee Blessing intended, a story with many levels of surprise.

A renowned British eye surgeon living safely in the village of St. Ives and the mother of a merciless African dictator come together with requests of each other that not only provide a bit of surprise but a basis for both to explore their own truths and life dilemmas.

Cast in this production are Katrina Kittle and Catherine Collins, both experienced actors.  Directed by Greg Smith, also a veteran of the theatre, this cast and production have also seen their share of surprises.  Moments before this production opened, Catherine Collins became seriously ill and was unable to continue.  A surprise one can do without.  Moments before the open, Director Smith found himself convincing a gifted actress, Marianna Harris, to step into the role of May N’Kame with no time for rehearsal.  She would have to go onstage with a script in hand.  A surprise neither could have envisioned.

Then the biggest surprise of all came for the audience.  It worked.  It made no difference.  These two talented actors did not let a script-in-hand or their worry about a colleague’s health or anything else get in the way of the story.  They connected and they made a little magic on the stage at the Guild.

The actress Marianna Harris incorporated this book in her hand as a prop and it became part of the story.  The character May N’Kame may well have been looking at her notes that she wanted to remember as she spoke to her doctor.  She didn’t miss a beat.  Her performance was not about the prop, it was about the life and conflict of May N’Kame.  And it was May who we came to know.

Katrina Kittle is a successful and talented novelist and her notoriety might bring some into the theatre to see her.  They will be disappointed.  She’s not there.  She brings Dr. Cora Gage to life in a sensitive way that compels you to pay attention to her story.  Her work is about the play.  She rolls with the challenges of the cast change and for the audience it is seamless.

What is fascinating about this event in the theatre is that in spite of the fact there are these other ‘reality’ stories behind the scenes, both of these talented actresses are able to take us past any other reality and straight to the story of Going to St. Ives, straight to the engaging story that Lee Blessing wrote.  And we are engaged and we are moved.

Live theatre is a collaborative storytelling effort.  Go to this theatre and take advantage of this collaboration.  After the playwright has finished penning the last line and the Director has given the last note, the actors are the final link in the collaboration.  This link is strong.  You have until April 1, 2012.   Spread the word and do yourself a favor.  Go to St. Ives.   Watch the magic.