“Gem of the Ocean” – Black Theatre Troupe

This review aired on KBAQ October 20, 2008


Black Theatre Troupe, Playhouse on the Park
Phoenix, AZ

Before playwright August Wilson’s 2005 death, he completed a remarkable ten-play series chronicling the black experience in 20th century America. Many of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an enclave of African-American families. The series’ ninth play, “Gem of the Ocean,” starts the history. Black Theatre Troupe has tried for several seasons to get rights to this masterwork.

While their production isn’t perfect, it’s wonderful to have this work here. The actors, in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith’s competent staging, bring the work to life and the production’s weaknesses can’t tarnish it.

Set in 1904, the play focuses on Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave and the fiery family matriarch. Aunt Ester appears in several of Wilson’s plays representing black history. She’s also an expert soul cleanser. Two people enter her family. Citizen Barlow, who bears the guilt of a crime he’s committed, is set on a spiritual journey of recovery by Aunt Ester. Solly Two Kings, a former slave and Union informer, helps his people survive. Around Aunt Ester are Black Mary, her housekeeper, Eli, Aunt Ester’s caregiver, and Caesar, Black Mary’s militaristic policeman brother. As the plot progresses, you learn how black Americans survived and the challenges they faced.

Much happens with the diverse and inner-related characters. In order to succeed, the play must be dramatic and focused. Too often the Black Theatre Troupe production ambles when it should soar. There are proficient performances but no actor truly becomes the character they portray. Wilson’s plays demand powerful performances in a sharply engaging production, something not the case here. One must wade through mediocre performances to discover the play’s strength and the rich way it translates the black experience.

The actors chat and move as if they are in a contemporarily set play. They never seem to be in 1904. Olga Idriss’ doesn’t act old enough to become Aunt Ester. You don’t see the elderly woman’s rich history. She never captures Aunt Ester’s fire and conviction and without that she doesn’t become the central character Aunt Ester must be. David Tinsley’s Citizen Barlow is better as he successfully captures his character’s pain and disappointment as Aunt Ester starts his journey to spiritual rebirth. Yolanda London gets Black Mary’s grit and spunk, Mike Traylor weaves a strong Solly, and Kwane Vedrene’s Caesar is all pompous authority.

It’s great to see “Gem of the Ocean’s” insight into the black experience. Even in this less than perfect staging, it’s worth seeing. It continues through November 2. For tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151 or go online at www.blacktheatretroupe.org.

Grade: C