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.