Thursday, February 05, 2009

Gem of the Ocean

Peggy Shannon, artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company, has long had a dream.

She has dreamed of giving Sacramento-area patrons the chance to experience playwright August Wilson's groundbreaking 10-play series, 'The Pittsburgh Cycle,' which chronicles the tragedies and aspirations of African-Americans, decade by decade, through the 20th century.

Shannon finally is seeing her dream come to life: STC has made a commitment to produce the plays, one each year, beginning with 'Gem of the Ocean.' Although this work was written near the end of Wilson's life, it chronologically marks the beginning of the series; 'Gem of the Ocean' is set in 1904, against the legacy of emancipation.

Director Darryl V. Jones' powerful production features stellar performances by everybody in the seven- member cast.

Slavery looms large in this work. Each of the characters has either come up from slavery or is experiencing some sort of personal bondage that must be dealt with, whether physically or spiritually. The lessons learned during the course of the play will set each character on a path of freedom, in one direction or another.

Aunt Ester Tyler (Lisa Lacy), said to be 285 years old, is the 'griot' of the piece: the keeper of the oral history. The play is set at her home at 1839 Wylie Ave. - significant because 1839 was the year of the slave revolt on the Cuban schooner Amistad - a house of peace where it's said that she has the power to 'wash souls.'

Lacy gives a memorable performance, as she brings Ester's strength and heart to the stage. The actress does her best work in Act 2, and her anguish at a tragic moment is heartbreaking.

This home becomes a refuge for Citizen Barlow (Hosea L. Simmons), a tormented man desperate for Aunt Ester's assistance in starting a new life.

Citizen Barlow has left the oppressive racism of Alabama, but can find no peace in his new home because of guilt over his role in the suicide of a fellow worker.

Barlow's spiritual journey to the 'City of Bones' at the 'center of the world' - built from the bones of slaves who did not survive the journey from Africa to the new world - is key to this play; it puts him in the position of embracing the opportunity to set out on a new life when it comes along, in order to find his true destiny.

Simmons likewise gives a powerful performance, particular during his transformation, as he comes to term with his past life and takes up the mantle of responsibility for the future.

Eli (James Wheatley), Aunt Ester's caretaker, takes seriously his responsibility to maintain the house as 'peaceable.' In the days of slavery, Eli helped many slaves to freedom.

He's now busily constructing a stone wall to keep the house safe.

Solly Two Kings (Donald Lacy), who in many ways seems the heart of this play, is an ex-slave who worked with Eli on the Underground Railroad. Solly now makes a living gathering 'pure' (dog droppings), to be used for manure. His walking stick always is with him; it bears the notches carved for each slave he safely guided to freedom in Canada.

Solly and Aunt Ester obviously have deep feelings for one another.

Black Mary (C. Kelly Wright), who works as a housekeeper for Aunt Ester, undergoes her own personal transformation during the trip to the 'City of Bones.'

Mary's brother, Caesar Wilkes (Hansford Prince), is the villain of the piece: He attempts to uphold the white man's law, no matter how adversely it affects those around him.

Matt K. Miller plays Rutherford Selig, a Jewish peddler and an essential character: regarded with suspicion by some, but invaluable for passing along messages and warnings to the family.

'Gem of the Ocean' is an auspicious beginning for the 10-year cycle of Wilson plays. It's a powerful work - and a deeply moving local production - that will bring a face to African American history.

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