Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Gem of the Ocean
In Gem of the Ocean, August Wilson begins his decade-by-decade chronicling of the African American experience at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill District, an address close to where he lived as a boy, a house and neighborhood that are the heart and soul of all but one of the ten, stirring stories. Although the plays were not written in order–Gem of the Ocean was his ninth of the twenty-three-year project–the flow from the first to the tenth is a masterpiece detailing the heritage and culture, the trials and tribulations, and the triumphs and accomplishments of a people who entered the century barely out of slavery and ended it still living with the legacy of that bondage in much of their everyday lives.
The beginning of any new century is often full of hope while still carrying the consequences of the past one. In Gem of the Ocean, the collage of stories of those living and passing through 1839 Wylie Avenue in 1904 are of those who remember slavery, those who risked lives for theirs and others' freedom, those who are working hard to establish their own roots in what is in essence a new world for them, and those who are still running from oppression toward hoped-for salvation.
Framing all the pieces of this saga is a too-familiar story, then and now. An African American man is wrongly accused of a petty crime (stealing a bucket of nails from a local mill) and commits suicide, choosing to die as an innocent rather than be falsely jailed. This atrocity inflames this 1904 Black community, resulting in an uprising and an act of destructive defiance that will be repeated over and again in Watts, Boston, Memphis, Baltimore, and too many other American cities. As we hear of Blacks in Pittsburgh being evicted from their homes and living on the street, of police brutally beating those trying to demonstrate for better working conditions, or of even a young man being shot because he stole a loaf of bread, August Wilson's play is truly and unfortunately one of yesteryear, yesterday, and today.
Our setting is the home of Aunt Ester Tyler, a former slave who matter-of-factly declares her age to be 285 years old, meaning she was born in 1619, the year the first African arrived on American shores. As a conjurer, healer, and master storyteller, Aunt Ester is the history of her people in all she seems to know of the past, to have instinct of the present, and to see of the future. To give due justice in describing the host of merits of Greta Oglesby's performance as Aunt Ester is beyond what can be said on the printed page. Her Aunt Ester must be experienced live to see a face that speaks volumes of a life's incredible history in both its radiance and in its furrows and then to gaze into those deeply expressive eyes that have seen and see more than most mortals around her. One also needs to hear the voice that comes in undulating waves like that of a traveling evangelist as she leaves no one doubting her when she preaches, " It's man who sometimes gets in the way of God's creation and turns it over to the devil." or when she commands, "If the wheel don't turn the right way, you got to fix it." That same voice can soothe and heal as Aunt Ester provides clear, confident, and clairvoyant guidance to those seeking her help.
Living with Aunt Ester are Eli and Black Mary. Eli is an ex-slave who now cares for Aunt Ester, always with proud dignity presenting a well-manicured person in a three-piece suit. He is someone who knows that freedom does not come easy for the Black man: "You got a long row to hoe, and you ain't got no plow ... you ain't got no mule." Jerome Preston Bates' Eli is easy to like and imagine as a friend well worth having. But more, he is a man to respect and admire–one who is doing all he can, including building a wall of rocks, to protect at all costs his adopted family from the evils he sees around them.
As Black Mary, Porscha Shaw conveys a compassionate woman who is eager to serve the needs of Aunt Ester but to do so in her own independent way. Aunt Ester wants to pass on to her all the names of those who have passed before, telling her as Black Mary washes her feet, "I feel them." These are names with memories and mystic knowledge brought from Africa that Aunt Ester hopes Mary will learn and use to help those who come knocking at the door of this home known as a house of sanctuary. It is clear Porscha Shaw's Black Mary is in fact acquiring that sense of history in the soulful, soothing songs she from time to time sings–songs reminiscent of the still-recent days of hard labor in the fields of the South.
One such person seeking Aunt Ester's sanctuary and healing does not knock on the door but arrives through an open, upstairs window. Citizen Barlow is a recent immigrant from the still-oppressive Alabama–a young, shy, and handsome man whose very name of Citizen underlines the next-generation's goal of leaving their parents' slavery behind to find their rightful place in America. However, before he can move on to settle into this new realm, Citizen must first beg Aunt Ester to perform a "soul wash" of a huge guilt plaguing him.
Citizen's new-found family leads him through a frightening, mesmerizing, and awe-inspiring journey of confession and redemption as he symbolically takes a paper-folded ship in his hand (the "Gem of the Ocean") across an angry ocean to a City of (African) Bones. Edward Ewell is especially breathtaking as Citizen takes his spiritual journey, his body writhing in the mental pain he must endure in order to understand the trials of his heritage before he finally secures his sought-after salvation and peace of mind–rising with a beaming, tear-filled face as he now understands first-hand the history of his people.
A frequent visitor who is like a member of the family is an ex-slave and former conductor of the Underground Railroad, Solly Two Kings, whose notched cane is marked to remember the sixty-two slaves he rescued. Solly is about once again to take that cane and to walk the 800 miles to rescue his sister desperate to leave an Alabama, whose laws are making it near impossible for the great immigration of Blacks to the North to continue. Kim Sullivan's Solly is a delightful spark of energy with many words of wisdom based on both his faith and hard-life experiences. He says with deep-felt and grateful conviction, "You know how they say you should count your blessings? I can't count that far." His ever-present smile and cheerful outlook betray his harsh past and present, but there is no hiding his determination to right the wrongs–something that will play itself out in major ways for the family and community around him.
Rounding out this stellar cast are two opposites. Rodney Hicks is Black Mary's stern but striking brother Caesar Wilkes, whose success and standing in the majority white community of Pittsburgh as a police officer has come at the expense of the Blacks he pursues for petty crimes like stealing nails. With a sense of high and mighty superiority, Caesar rants and raves about the members of his own community, embodying the worst of legal righteousness too often to be echoed later in the century when he justifies his harsh, cruel actions as "The law is everything; you got to respect the law." Quite opposite from this harsh demeanor is Dan Hiatt, masterfully playing a wily, storytelling, and homespun tinker, Rutherford Selig. His genuine love and liking for Aunt Ester and her clan is clearly reciprocated. Rutherford seems to be the playwright's way of saying that, just as there are some bad Blacks like Caesar, there are in fact a few good whites in this world.
Starring also in this TheatreWorks winner is the entire creative team. First and foremost, William Bloodgood has created a massive 1839 Wylie abode, both modest in its singular interior color of industrial gray-green and majestic with its two layers of paned windows that allow Lonnie Rafael Alcarez's impressive lighting design to announce times of day and moments of menace. The huge home has many authentic touches of a working-class, turn-of-the-century home, including a lovely, upholstered Queen Anne chair that rightly serves as a kind of throne for the revered Aunt Ester. Lydia Tanji's costumes are a script unto themselves to gain insights about each character while the original music of Michael Keck both establishes the play's period and recalls the history and legacy the characters share.
The capstone in this production is the overall vision, detailed interpretation, and emotional inspiration Tim Bond brings as director. Stark, harsh reality gives way to upheaving, spiritual ritual where imagination is itself as real as life. Humor and heart warm the room even as there continues to be a knocking on the door of threat and ugliness. A walk across the floor becomes a window into the truth of a person's good or bad nature while pace alters in ways to herald a deserved reverence, a possible romance, or collective response of good winning over impending evil–all directorial choices that help make TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Gem of the Ocean a must-see.
Gem of the Ocean runs through May 1, 2022, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.theatreworks.org, call 650-903 6000 (24 hours), or visit the Center's box office Wednesday - Thursday, noon - 4 p.m. and Friday - Saturday, noon - 6 p.m.