Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Gem of the Ocean"

Gem of the Ocean
August Wilson

Juney Smith, Namir Smallwood, David Everett Moore & Margo Hall

Through her walled displays that could as easily be in an art gallery as on a theatre’s stage, Kimberlee Koym-Murteira captures the essence of the themes and stories of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.  A beautiful liquid prism wall of overlapping squares of many shades of blue recalls the journey of slaves across the Atlantic.  Wooden chairs (one with a washboard as backing) hung on a wall, to be used as needed and then returned, speak to a people that have had, time and again, to set themselves down in humble settings before picking up and moving on again.  A massive collage of scenes from the 1904 Hill District of Pittsburgh both establish the time and the location of the story and the nature of the intertwined stories that will act as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to paint an overall picture of the past, present, and future of Africans come to America.   Finally, the walls all rest on a floor that suggests that great, faraway continent where the ancestors of those we will meet were so horribly separated forever.  Marin Theatre Company presents a soaring, sensitive, and -- in every way imaginable -- sensational production of this first of August Wilson’s plays about the African American experience in the ten decades of the Twentieth Century.

The beginning of any new century is often full of hope while still carrying the consequences of the past one.  The collage of stories of those living and passing through 1839 Wylie Avenue 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 our evening’s puzzle is a too-familiar story, then and now.  An African-American man is accused wrongly of a petty crime (in this case, stealing a bucket of nails from a local mill) and ends in his committing 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 background music (composed and directed by Kevin Carnes) of distant African chants, moaning hymns born in slavery, early jazz notes, and later hints of honky-tonk and even rap so profoundly alert us, August Wilson’s play is truly one of yesteryear, yesterday, and today.

Margo Hall
Our setting is the home of Aunt Esther, a former slave who declares matter-of-factly her age to be 285 years old, meaning she was born the year the first African arrived on American shores.  As a conjurer, healer, and master storyteller, Aunt Esther is the history of her people in all she seems to know of the past, to instinct of the present, and to see of the future.  Her long, earth-mother dress has a patchwork of faces on it (as we learn in our program) of the likes of Emmett Till, Mike Brown, and Oscar Grant; and her dangling jewelry and beads speak to the African journey from original roots to present day (all thanks to Katherine Nowacki’s both symbolic and time-authentic costuming).  Margo Hall is a gigantic presence in the petite, aged body of Aunt Esther.  Her face speaks volumes in both its radiance and in its furrows; and her piercing, miles-deep eyes both have seen and do see more than most mortals around her.  Aunt Esther’s raspy voice is both clear and confident with clairvoyant guidance to those seeking help and loving and calming in moments of soothing the pains of others around her.  There is no doubting her when she declares, “It is man that takes God’s creation and turns it over to the devil” or when she commands, “If the world don’t turn the right way, you got to fix it.”

Living with Aunt Esther are Eli and Black Mary.  Eli is an ex-slave who cares now for Aunt Esther; talks in slow, measured cadence; and 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.”  David Everett Moore is solid in his conveyance of this man who is doing all he can, including building a wall of rocks, to protect his adopted family from the evils he sees around them.

As Black Mary, Omoze Idehenre conveys a woman who is eager to help Aunt Esther but to do so in her own independent way.  A large woman with broad shoulders ready to offer others’ comfort, she is also exceptionally light on her feet and graceful with her hands and arms as she, like others around her, silently and spontaneously illustrates in mime-fashion both her and others’ stories --  a technique Director Daniel Alexander James poetically uses throughout to connect current words to the tribal mystical traditions of the past. 

David Everett Moore, Juney Smith & Omoze Idehenre
Juney Smith is the ex-slave and former conductor of the Underground Railroad, Solly Two Kings, whose notched cane is marked to remember the sixty-three 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 about to make it impossible for the great immigration of Blacks to the North to continue.  Mr. Smith’s Solly is a big, burly man whose heart and smile reach out to all around him and whose cheerful outlook betrays his harsh past and present: “You know how they say you should count your blessings?  I can’t count that far.”  Mr. Moore effectively conveys Eli’s determination of singular purpose that will play itself out in major ways for the family and community around him.

Invading the home on Wylie Avenue through an open window is a recent immigrant from the dreaded Alabama, a young, shy, and handsome Citizen Barlow, whose very name 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 Esther to “soul wash” him of a huge guilt plaguing him.  Namir Smallwood’s accounting of the ritual his newly found family leads him through is frightening, mesmerizing, and awe-inspiring as he rides an ethereal ship (the “Gem of the Ocean”) to a City of (African) Bones.  His voice rises and falls as the waves of the ocean he crosses; his body writhes in the mental pain he must go through understanding the trials of the past; and his face beams with the redemption he eventually finds by understanding first-hand the history of his people.

Rounding out this excellent cast are two opposites.  Tyee J. Tilghman 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.  Mr. Tilghman in cool and evil demeanor embodies the worst of legal righteousness too often to be echoed later in the century when he justifies his actions as “The law is everything; you got to respect the law.”   On the other hand, Patrick Kelly Jones masterfully plays a wily, homespun tinker, Rutherford Selig, whose genuine love and liking for Aunt Esther’s clan is clearly reciprocated and who seems to be the playwright’s way of saying that there are in fact some good whites in this world.

Marin Theatre Company takes a play done in the past in magnificent fashion on much larger stages like A.C.T. and Oregon Shakespeare and totally gives it new interpretation and life that will live on for years in the memories of all who attend this special production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

Rating: 5 E

Gem of the Ocean continues through February 14, 2016 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.  Tickets are available online at https://tickets.marintheatre.org/Online/ or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208, Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 5 p.m.

Photo Credits:  Kevin Berne

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