“Gem of the Ocean” is often cited as one of the finest plays in August Wilson’s famous “Century Cycle” — a series of 10 plays, set in each decade of the 20th century, which describe a vast panorama of Black experience in America.
Marin Theatre Company has a fine history with the “Century Cycle,” having previously produced critically acclaimed productions of Fences and Seven Guitars. Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis has committed to producing all ten century-cycle plays at MTC.
“Gem of the Ocean” weaves a complex story involving several interlocking plots and themes: a labor dispute at a local mill which involves a struggle of conscience for the young Citizen Barlow, the concerns of Solly Two Kings for the well being of his sister who is unable to escape the Jim Crow South, the sympathetic efforts of a white friend of the family to protect Citizen Barlow, the earthy Black Mary who holds the family and friends together, and — above all — the guiding light of the mysterious Aunt Ester, a powerful elder who possesses spiritual vision and the ability to lead the younger folk to an experience of transcendence.
Director Daniel Alexander Jones has chosen to approach none of these complex plot points in a straightforward fashion. Instead, he applies what has been described as a “Theatrical Jazz Aesthetic.” This involves a collage approach to the story telling, involving elements such as abstract gesture and sound, rhythmic dance movements, moments that appear to be out of time with the story, and a general feeling of improvisation.
For this reviewer, the approach was more confusing than enlightening. The many improvisational elements, although interesting and sometimes quite moving, disengaged me from the details of the plot and removed the element of suspense from the story. The rhythms of the piece seemed to be unchanging and undifferentiated. Although the effect was often quite beautiful, it was also difficult to follow and at times, frankly, rather dull. For the first act, I found it difficult to focus my attention and maintain my interest.
This may be a failure of appreciation on my part, rather than a failure of this production. Certainly, the cast is outstanding and highly professional in every regard. Juney Smith, in particular, as Solly Two Kings, is fascinating to watch, the very incarnation of the archetype of a gate opener and walker between two worlds, who has led many Blacks to freedom through the underground railroad. As Black Mary, Omoze Idehenre (who gave an astonishingly brilliant performance as Prudence in last season’s production of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert”) demonstrates, again, that she is an actress of great power and charisma.
The second act was more interesting. At its heart is a wonderful, unworldly depiction of a spiritual journey by Citizen Barlow riding a spiritual (metaphorical?) boat, the Gem of the Ocean, to the City of Bones under the guidance of spiritual elder Aunt Ester. Here, the production achieves a true sense of the uncanny. We sense deeply the power of the spiritual traditions of Mother Africa and the ways in which the entire community, including ancestors, enter into the experience of Citizen Barlow, guiding him to find important truths about himself. It is magical. The ensemble work of the actors in this wonderful sequence is a joy to behold.
Still, at the end of the evening, I was left confused and unsatisfied. Although I had experienced lovely images, surprising juxtapositions, and charismatic performances by outstanding actors, I found I had not been able to follow the story. The production had made too many demands on me as audience to which I was unable to respond. It seems to me that telling the story should be a paramount duty of any director and company, and here the production fell short, in spite of its other fine qualities.
The extensive program notes by the director and dramaturge suggest that the “theatrical jazz aesthetic” being explored here is something new and different and challenging and it may be that I was not up to the challenge. It should be noted that other reviewers, whom I respect, were very taken with this production.
I have to conclude that, although the production had quite a few extraordinary elements, it failed to fully reach and move me as audience. Fans of August Wilson, and intellectually and aesthetically adventurous theatre goers, will probably want to judge for themselves.
“Gem of the Ocean” plays at Marin Theatre Company through February 14, 2016. For further information, click here.
“Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson, produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Daniel Alexander Jones. Costumes: Katherine Nowacki. Lighting: Michael K. Wangen. Sound: Sara Huddleston. Music Director/Composer: Kevin Carnes. Properties Artisan: Lizabeth Stanley.
Eli: David Everett Moore. Citizen Barlow: Namir Smallwood. Aunt Ester: Margo Hall. Black Mary: Omoze Idehenre. Rutherford Selig: Patrick Kelly Jones. Solly Two Kings: Juney Smith. Caesar Wilks: Tyee J. Tilghman.