Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson sheds informative, compelling light on early twentieth-century African-American life in Gem Of The Ocean, now being given an absolutely spectacular production at South Coast Repertory.

 The year is 1904, a mere four decades since the 13th Amendment put an end to 285 years of slavery, and legend has it that the Hill District’s Aunt Ester Tyler (L. Scott Caldwell) has been on this earth since the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginian in 1619.

It’s perhaps no wonder then that Aunt Ester’s has become the spiritual home of Pittsburgh’s African-American community and she its spiritual advisor, or that freshly-arrived Citizen Barlow (Preston Butler III) has shown up at her doorstep for some spiritual healing only she can provide.

First, however the young Alabamian must get past Aunt Ester’s 20something housekeeper Black Mary (Shinelle Azoroh) and her stalwart gatekeeper Eli (Matt Orduña), a task and eventually achieved by uninvited entry through a window conveniently left unlocked.

Citizen, it turns out, isn’t the only black man in Pittsburgh to have met with trouble these past few days. A millworker accused of stealing a bucket of nails has chosen death by drowning rather than confess to a crime he swore he did not commit, and the entire Hill District is up in arms.

The dead man’s coworkers have refused to report for work these past three days, a spontaneous walk-out that has prompted Black Mary’s constable brother Caesar (Arnell Powell) to arrest several of them and shoot another.

Talk about a town in turmoil.

Completing Gem Of The Ocean’s cast of characters are Solly Two Kings (Cleavant Derricks), a onetime Underground Railroad worker with sixty-two notches on his walking stick, one for each slave he “carried to freedom,” and Rutherford Selig (Hal Landon Jr.), an older white traveling peddler for whom Aunt Ester’s is a frequent stop.

It takes most of Act One for playwright Wilson to specify what has prompted Citizen’s guilt, time during which the playwright allows us to get to know the characters he has created, in particular the beautiful, educated Black Mary, groomed to become Aunt Ester’s successor; Solly, whose sister Eliza finds herself a virtual prisoner in an American South now doing its violent darnedest to prevent former slaves from escaping north; and Caesar, seen by the black community as having sold out to the white man and by himself as simply upholding the law as written.

Above all there is Aunt Ester, carrying centuries of pain and suffering and wisdom and compassion and strength inside her wizened, stooped frame, and Citizen, desperate for redemption and quite possibly destined for greatness.

Powerful stuff this, and an informative Black History lesson as well, and despite a two-hour-forty-five-minute running time, blessed with nary a dull moment, and never more so than in an Act Two journey by slave ship to the mid-Atlantic City Of The Bones, a mystical voyage rendered absolutely spectacular by projection designer Shawn Duan, lighting designer Dawn Chiang, and composer-sound designer Lindsay Jones, the sky-high point of the trio’s sensational design contributions.

Under Kent Gash’s inspired direction, performances could not be more brilliant, from Caldwell’s near-mythical power as Aunt Ester to Azoroh’s feisty, fiery Black Mary to Landon’s charmingly folksy Selig to Orduña’s earthy, eloquent Eli.

Derricks’ volcanic dynamo of a Solly and Powell’s explosive power as Caesar make them particular standouts, and Butler has everything it takes for leading man stardom—talent, looks, charisma, and an MFA from Cal Arts.

Additional production design kudos go to scenic designer Edward E. Haynes for a set that is both realistic and a bit fanciful, Susan Tsu for her period-perfect costumes, and Derricks for his astute musical direction and striking arrangements, with fight choreography kudos to Ken Merckx.

Judith Moreland is dialect coach. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Jamie A. Tucker is stage manager and Alyssa Escalante is assistant stage manager. Andy Knight is dramaturg. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.

Bringing Black History to commanding, emotionally powerful life, August Wilson’s Gem Of The Ocean adds yet another jewel to South Coast Repertory’s crown. Expect to be enlightened, riveted, and moved in equal measure.

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 24, 2107
Photos: Jordan Kubat/SCR


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