Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean
is a Powerful Spiritual Drama

Also see Richard's reviews of Nero (Another Golden Rome) and Urinetown

Michele Shay and Owiso Odera
American Conservatory Theatre is presenting August Wilson's influential drama Gem of the Ocean through March 12 at their Geary Street Theatre. This nominee for the 2005 Best Play Tony Award is the ninth in the playwright's ten-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century. Chronologically, it is the first in the series and introduces characters referred to in his later plays.

Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904 at the home of the indomitable matriarch Aunt Ester, in Pittsburgh's Hill District where most of the plays in the series take place.  The play deals with the legacy of slavery and what still exists in a free environment. There are poetic passages about the history of slavery, starting with the terrors of the Underground Railway prior to the Civil War and the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation. All of this is told powerfully by the cynical Solly Two Kings (Steven Anthony Jones).

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson puts us immediately into the action as young, distressed drifter Citizen Barlow (Owiso Odera) breaks into Aunt Ester's (Michele Shay) house, seeking help from the spiritual healer.   He has a heavy sin on his soul and he is seeking redemption from the fiery woman who claims to be a 285-year-old former slave. There are several parallel plots, including one with the antagonist lawmaker Caesar (Gregory Wallace), who wants to nail both Solly and Citizen for alleged crimes. Another plot involves Solly getting ready to go back down to Alabama where blacks are being economically persecuted by whites to keep them on a "slave" basis. 

Aunt Ester arranges a voodoo séance where she will lead Citizen across the Atlantic Ocean to the mythical City of Bones made of the skeletons of slaves who died during the passage from Africa. He gets a chance to face his sins and find redemption. This sequence is an authentic ritual but it does tend to go on much too long and slows the action of the play.

August Wilson's dialogue is stunning, sheer poetry, especially when it comes from Aunt Ester. Her words on life are inspiring , for example: "You think you supposed 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 in this sprawling production are full of incredible power. Each of the fascinating characters gets an invigorating speech and all are gems. Solly's history of how he escaped thought the Underground Railway prior to the Civic War up to Canada and then returned to the south to help 63 slaves find freedom is mesmerizing as spoken by Steven Anthony Jones. 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson has assembled a superb cast of actors from New York and locally to portray these charismatic characters speaking realism mixed with mysticism. The naturalistic dialogue ("What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it?") is one August Wilson's best.

Michele Shay (New York actress including her Obie winner performance in Meetings) commands the stage as Aunt Ester. She goes flawlessly from a worn-out old lady to a primeval conjure woman in the second act. Her speech and walk are mesmerizing; even the very long sequence of the Voodoo séance is attention-grabbing.

Steven Anthony Jones (ACT's core member), with his theatrical voice, portrays Solly as an unconquerable spirit with a devious humor that has been not been weakened even with the pain and suffering this man has endured.  Roslyn Ruff (played the role at the McCarter Theatre Center production and has appeared off Broadway in Macbeth) is outstanding as a constrained but strong Black Mary. Owiso Odera (recently in For the Love of Three Oranges at La Jolla Playhouse and Macbeth in Boston) is persuasive as Citizen Barlow. Gregory Wallace (ACT core member) in a showy role of the African American cop and small business man Caesar is dazzling.  He gives a tremendous performance as a self righteous and a vicious convert to the law. Charles Patterson (appeared in the role in the McCarter Theatre production plus several Broadway credits) is very good as he portrays Aunt Ester's faithful attendant Eli. Rounding out the cast is Chuck Patterson (played the role on Broadway) as the itinerant peddler; he is excellent in the role.

Santiago-Hudson moves this production along with vigor and urgency and gives life to every scene as they rapidly flow smoothly together.  The set design is the same as the McCarter Theatre production, designed by Michael Carnahan and a detailed living room of an early 20th century lower middle income living area with an impossibly high staircase, high walls and mammoth windows. Jane Cox's lighting fits perfectly with the mood of the play, especially in the extended Voodoo scene. Karen Perry's costumes are spot on for the period. The polyrhythmic score by Bill Sims Jr. and Broderick Santiago is compelling, especially when Citizen is transported to the City of Bones.

Gem of the Ocean runs through March 12 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-749- 2228 or visit Opening next is Richard Brinsley Sherian's classic The Rivals opening on March 23 and running through April 23rd.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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