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A CurtainUp Review
Gem Of the Ocean On Broadway
Phylicia Rashad
Phylicia Rashad
You got to fight to make it mean something. . . What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it?
--- Solly Two Kings, the ertwhile Underground Railroad keeper voicing the overriding concern about the challenges freedom poses.

August Wilson has been fortunate in having his plays directed by men attuned to his style and language, and his characters' monologue-laced conversations. First Lloyd Richards, and in recent years, Marion McClinton. When illness forced McClinton, who was still at the helm when Laura Hitchcock reviewed Gem of the Ocean at the Mark Taper Forum, to step down, Kenny Leon took charge. As Eli (Eugene Lee) carefully safeguards Aunt Ester's (Phylicia Rashad) house at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill district, so Leon has steered the colorful characters still struggling with how to make something of their hard-won freedom in 1904, to a safe landing on Broadway.

Leon is no stranger to the play or its star. He originated the role of its most transformed character, Citizen Barlow, and directed its star in Everybody's Ruby and last year's award-winning revival of A Raisin in the Sun. The director has lopped a half hour off the original three hours without sacrificing any of its power and color.

David Gallo's high-ceilinged design for the house that's equal parts spooky gothic and dark Tara-like plantation (as with many of Wilson's plots, don't ask how a former slave acquired this mansion!) has transferred to the Walter Kerr without a hitch. The other applause-worthy design elements -- Donald Holder's and Dan Moses Schreier's mood building lighting and sound, Kathryn Bostic's original music and Constanza Romera's (Mrs. Wilson in private life) handsomely detailed costumes-- all insure that this ninth play in Wilson's ten-play cycle (the first chronologically) remains true to the first word of its title.

Laura Hitcock's review of the Mark Taper production (right after these boxed off comments and production notes) is complete and accurate enough to also apply to the Broadway Gem. Phylicia Rashad is once again remarkable, metamorphosing from her elegant real life self into a grandmotherly portly woman with a palsied left hand (her children are the slaves whose memories she is committed to preserve). Anthony Chisholm, Eugene Lee, Raynor Scheine and John Earl Jelks reprise their committed performances. I was particularly impressed with Jelks, clearly a talent to watch.

The three replacement actors, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the villain (albeit an often funny one), Caesar, and Lisagay Hamilton as his sister, Black Mary, and Eugene Lee as Eli couldn't be better. In fact, if this weren't such a strong ensemble, Santiago-Hudson could be said to walk away with top acting honors. Hamilton is more understated, but she wins enthusiastic and deserved applause in her two monologues-- when she rebels against Aunt Ester's bossiness and disowns her brother.

Undoubtedly, Wilson watchers will debate as to how Gem of the Ocean compares to the previous entries in his ambitious cycle. You may hear complaints that it's not as strong or well-made as Jitney and a bit too much like a long social studies lesson. Whatever. . .Wilson's distinctive everyman poetry is not to be missed and Gem is accessible and entertaining. Most importantly it brings the mythical Aunt Ester front and center at long last.

Walter Kerr Theatre 219 West 48th Street, 212/239-6900
From 11/23/04; opening 12/06/04.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 10th performance

---Laura Hitchcock's Review of the Los Angeles Production

August Wilson has always maintained that he doesn't invent his characters. They come up and talk to him. When I first met him at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference where he was labbing Fences, he was talking about Aunt Ester. Reminiscing after the premiere of Gem of the Ocean, he said that for a long time, Aunt Ester wouldn't talk to him. She kept her secrets as Wilson wrote many more plays, none of which since Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, has he focused on a woman as the central character. In the World Premiere of Wilson's latest play, Gem of the Ocean, at the Mark Taper Forum, Aunt Ester speaks out and speaks to one of the most vivid assortment of characters Wilson has assembled.

This play, although the latest, is chronologically the first in Wilson's depiction of the African-American experience in every decade of the 20th century. It takes place in 1904 in Wilson's home territory, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA, but it also ventures deep into the realm of magical realism. That concept is reflected in David Gallo's set in which realistic design elements of Aunt Ester's high-ceilinged old house punctuate a cavernous space.

Aunt Ester herself is both a 285-year-old medium who embodies the history and wisdom of her race and a down-to-earth old lady who has her feet washed by Black Mary, her housekeeper and heiress apparent in a scene reminiscent of the Bible story in which Jesus's feet are washed by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Those Biblical characters are also reflected in Black Mary's household drudgery and the journey of Citizen Barlow, a young man who insists on consulting Aunt Ester, to the land of the dead. Citizen feels great guilt for causing the death of a man accused of stealing the bucket of nails actually stolen by him. In a Voodoo-esque séance, Aunt Ester sends him to the City of Bones which lies at the bottom of the sea and is composed of the bones of slaves who perished on that hideous passage. The gatekeeper at the door of this city of the afterlife is the man who died in Citizen's place. Thus, Aunt Ester performs a history lesson, a cleansing encounter and an exorcism where his soul is "washed clean."

Perhaps the most powerful character is Solly Two Kings, a former slave and pilot on the underground railway who guides slaves to freedom. He collects dog dung which Aunt Ester accepts as a tribute and is never without the chain he once wore which reminds him of where he was and what he must do. He has the authority of a king in the shabby clothes of a homeless person and the relationship between him and Aunt Ester intimates a long and close love.

Solly's antagonist is Caesar, the nattily dressed businessman and constable whose slavish devotion to the law is a mirror image of the slavery his people came from. He betrays them, particularly Solly Two Kings in a bitter finale, but Wilson has given him a vivid speech that attempts to explain, if it doesn't justify, his behavior.

As ever, Wilson is less interested in dramatic structure than in what he has to say. An autodidact who has said he was powerfully influenced by the work of the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, he immerses himself densely here in the influences of the period: the Bible and Voodoo, the fear and fierce disappointment of African-Americans at the failed promises of the Civil War, the struggle to advance. This rich and varied tapestry is laced with Wilson's mischievous humor, as well as poetry and music.

The inner lives of Aunt Ester, Citizen Barlow, Solly Two Kings and Caesar are spelled out in the monologues Wilson "heard", punctuated by plot points that seem almost incidental. They are played out agains Greek chorus of the mysterious Eli, Black Mary who grow in strength and the white peddler Rutherford Selig who is their friend.

Sometimes the toasts and elegies sound too self-consciously composed, but Wilson has never written solely naturalistic plays. It's as if he were translating what the characters say and feel into his own language.

There is one glaring anachronism but it's so funny and so much of a piece with the other elements stitched into the warp and woof of this work that I wouldn't do without it. Audiences and critics who insist on works that conform to the standard of a well-made play miss much of the uniqueness of this true artist. August Wilson is one of the few playwrights who is allowed to get away with his form and, if he wasn't, he would do it anyway, just as he always has.

Marion McClinton, who has taken over the directing reins of Wilson's plays from Lloyd Richards, brings out the humanity and the drama in Gem. The script is treated to a first rate cast by the Taper, beginning with the astonishing performance of Phylicia Rashad as Aunt Ester. Last seen by this writer playing a glamorous lady of an interesting age at The Pasadena Playhouse, Rashad plays the timeless mythical matriarch with a shrewd attentiveness to her earthy sense of humor and her pain.

Anthony Chisholm brings all the compassion and dedication of an avenging angel to the scruffy Solly Two Kings. Peter Francis James' blazing eyes and sword-stiff back express the tortured soul within the aspiring Caesar in a performance that is never less than crisp and electric. John Earl Jelks finds the confusion and poignance in the boy Citizen Barlow and his clumsy attempt at a love scene with Black Mary, forcefully played by Yvette Ganier, is uproarious. When Black Mary came up and talked to August Wilson, she told it like it is and Ganier listened. Al White brings dignity and strength to the enigmatic Eli and Raynor Scheine is pitch perfect as the peddler Rutherford Selig.

Constanza Romero's costumes are vivid and accurate, with a perception of detail that says as much about the characters as their lines. One example is the Napoleonic hat she puts on Solly Two Shoes' battered head. Donald Holder's candle-lit lighting design reflects the play's twin themes of mystery and illumination and his contribution to the City of Bones séance, complemented by Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, is potent. With one play left to go in his picture of the 20th century life of African-Americans, August Wilson has heard echoes of some of this play's interesting voices, has an idea of the time it will take him to write the next play. However, as usual at this stage of the game, he is wide open to mystery.

Playwright: August Wilson
Director: Marion McClinton
Cast: Anthony Chisholm (Solly Two Kings), Yvette Ganier (Black Mary), Peter Francis James (Caesar), John Earl Jelkes (Citizen Barlow), Phylicia Rashad (Aunt Ester), Raynor Scheine (Rutherford Selig), Al White (Eli).
Set Design: David Gallo
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costume Design: Constanza Romero
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Music Composed and Arranged by Kathryn Bostic
Running Time: Three hours with one 15-minute inermission
Running Dates: July 20-September 7, 2003
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Ph: (213) 628-2772
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on July 30, 2003.

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