Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904 at the Pittsburgh Hill District home of the indomitable matriarch Aunt Ester (Margo Hall) and her protégé and housekeeper Black Mary (Omoze Idehenre). Slavery has been illegal for 40 years but African Americans are struggling for equal rights and to find a better life in the harsh white world. The drama becomes intense when a young African American named Citizen Barlow (Namir Smallwood) breaks into Aunt Ester's house, seeking help from the spiritual healer. She is known as a saver of souls and this man needs his "soul washed."
There are several parallel plots about Aunt Ester's good friend Solly Two Kings (Juney Smith) getting ready to go back to Alabama where blacks are being economically persecuted by whites to keep them on a "slave" basis, and Caesar Wilks (Tyee J. Tilghman), the ruthless local "Uncle Tom" constable who does not let personal feelings get in the way of immense ambition. Rounding out the cast of characters are Eli (David Everett Moore), who is another friend of Aunt Ester, and Rutherford Selig (Patrick Kelly Jones), a white peddler.
Wilson's dialogue is magnificent, pure poetry, especially when it comes from Aunt Ester played magnificently by Margo Hall. Her words on life are inspirational. For example: "You think you suppose to know everything. Life is a mystery; don't you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain't all for you to know. It's all an adventure. That's all life is. But you got to trust that adventure." The speeches are full of incredible power. Each of these mesmerizing characters gets an energizing speech and all are gems. Solly's history of how he escaped to Canada through the Underground Railway prior to the Civic War is spellbinding as spoken by Juney Smith.
Director Daniel Alexander Jones boldly employs a theatrical jazz aesthetic into this production, an art form that is uniquely suited to expressing the complexities of black lives. He has created a collage of images, sounds, and time. It takes awhile to get use to, but in the end I found it fascinating. Jones has assembled a superb cast of actors from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and locally to portray these charismatic characters speaking realism mixed with mysticism. One of the best things spoken by one of the characters is "What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it."
Margo Hall commands the stage as Aunt Ester. The conjure-woman with a long sequence in a voodoo séance in the second act is hypnotic. New York actor Juney Smith with his beautiful theatre voice portrays Solly as an undefeated spirit with a wily humor. Omoze Idehenre is impressive as a constrained but strong Black Mary. Chicago actor Namir Smallwood is outstanding as Citizen Barlow. He has the movement and speech of this young man down pat. David Everett Moore is excellent as Aunt Ester's faithful attendant Eli, and Tyee J. Tilghman in the showy role of the African-American cop is terrific, bringing a tremendous performance as a self-righteous and malicious convert to the law. Rounding out the cast is Patrick Kelly Jones as Rutherford Selig the itinerant peddler; he is admirable in the role.
The production is presented on a bare stage with some chairs and a table; however, in the background is a sort of patchwork fabric showing various shots of the Hill District of Pittsburgh; this work is by Kimberlee Koym-Murteira. Costumes by Katherine Nowacki are authentic outfits for the period and lighting by Michael K. Wangen is effective.
Gem of the Ocean runs through February 14, 2016, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5203 or visit www.marintheatre.org. Coming up next is the world premiere of Rachel Bonds' Swimmers opening on March 3rd.