It is a blessing to be able to see one of August Wilson’s plays from his Century Cycle, a magnum opus of ten plays each one set in a decade of the Twentieth Century. It is especially fine when it is performed by a first class cast at a premiere theatre company. I saw his final play, Radio Golf, set in in 1990s, in 2008 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. International City Theatre in Long Beach mounted an excellent production of Fences in 2015. South Coast Repertory’s current production of Gem of the Ocean is a superb theatre experience in all aspects.
Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1904, a mere thirty-nine years after the end of the Civil War, the plight of African Americans was still a desperate struggle for most. Lynched and denied justice in the South, marginalized and exploited in the North, former slaves and their children had a very tough go of it. As is revealed in the play, the State of Alabama, covetous of their labor, passed laws to prevent its black citizens from leaving.
The play takes place in the house of Aunt Ester (L. Scott Caldwell), a powerful, ancient woman who claims to be 285-years-old. She is a “soul-cleanser” who uses incantations and rituals to help those in guilt and emotional crisis to regain the ability to go on with their lives. One such needy person is Citizen Barlow (Preston Butler III), a young man recently arrived from the South and in agonizing guilt over the death of a man for which he is responsible and could have prevented.
Aunt Ester is the central character, but Citizen is the protagonist, the one who struggles. Because he reminds Aunt Ester of her long lost favorite child, Junebug, she takes pity on him and lets him live in a spare room. Aunt Ester’s long time friend, Solly Two Kings (Cleavant Derricks), is an intimate of the house and sweet on her, coming and going at will. He is a sixty-seven-year old man who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a scout for the Union Army.
Also residing in the house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, Eli (Matt Orduña), a man of middle age, is Aunt Ester’s caregiver and protector. He is erecting a stonewall and puts Citizen to work on it. Black Mary (Shinelle Azoroh) serves as Aunt Ester’s housekeeper and protégée in the mystic arts. She bristles when the household functions she performs never live up to Aunt Ester’s satisfaction. Rutherford Selig (Hal Landon, Jr.), an amiable peddler welcome in the house, stops in from time to time to sell pots, pans, and whatnot, as well as bringing in local news.
Black Mary’s brother, Caesar (Arnell Powell), a fierce, mean, malevolent man, is a slumlord and a policeman, complete with shiny badge and a six-shooter strapped to his thigh. He is self-righteous and not above shooting down a boy who stole a loaf of bread. He is the classic antagonist in this drama.
As performed by this extraordinary cast, the rich language of August Wilson, with its cadences, rhythms and African American vernacular, is poetry to the ear and utterly absorbing. L. Scott Caldwell as Aunt Ester dominates the stage when she is on. She sets the pace with the leisurely, limping gait of an old, but vital woman. It is interesting to note that she was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company and made her Broadway debut in Samm-Art Williams’ 1979 play, Home.
Gem of the Ocean, impeccably directed by Kent Gash, is lavishly presented with scenic design by Ed Haynes (lit by Dawn Chiang) that represents the turn-of-the-Century house with telling details like the pump-handle waterspout at the sink and a cast iron wood stove. Projections designed by Shawn Duan that appear before the play, at intermission, and between scenes, show the factory, or “mill,” referred to in the script, as well as African American faces, and art. Costumes by Susan Tsu are period perfect. Sound design and original music is by Lindsay Jones; and Judith Moreland is dialect coach.
It is a privilege to see and hear the work of August Wilson, one of the great American playwrights. I hope to see them all before I am done.
Gem of the Ocean runs through November 11 at South Coast Repertory in Cost Mesa. Get in a car, take a drive, and don’t miss the opportunity to experience this extraordinary production.