Theater Review

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Cast sparkles in “Gem of the Ocean”

By Juliet Schoen/Staff Writer

It’s a treat to visit with the black folks in August Wilson’s new play, “Gem of the Ocean,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre through Sept. 7. The residents of a faded house in Pittsburgh are well-limned characters who gain your respect and admiration. The year is 1904, just about 40 years after the end of the Civil War, and it comes as a shock to realize that some of the blacks have actually been slaves or experienced harrowing escapes from the South.

Have they achieved the freedom that was promised? The rules for black and white are still different at the turn of the last century. The action revolves around the suicide of a young black man who prefers death to incarceration for a crime he did not commit. The real criminal comes to the house to consult with Aunt Ester who has a reputation for “washing souls.” In a brilliant but harrowing scene, she calls up the ghosts of all the Negroes who were brought over from Africa in appalling conditions. The dead lie in a “City of Bones.”

Wilson has a way of creating unique characters. Although they are certainly not Irish, they have the gift of gab. The play runs about three hours, much too long, but it is difficult to decide which scene or monologue should be cut.

Phylicia Rashad is marvelous as the sage Aunt Ester, who can talk the talk and walk the walk of an ancient woman. Her dedicated suitor is played with relish by Anthony Chisholm who is given the interesting name of Solly Two Kings.

John Earl Jelks has the difficult role of the sinner who has the unusual, and ironic, first name of “Citizen.’ He is mesmerizing during the exorcism scene. Another tough role is played with power by Peter Francis James as a black policeman who is brutal while standing up for the law. Yvette Ganier plays Black Mary, convincing as a hard-working housekeeper who keeps busy during the entire play. Others in the excellent cast are Rutherford Selig and Al White.

The old house has been beautifully created by set designer David Gallo and the period costumes are just right, thanks to Constanza Holder. The action runs smoothly under the hands of director Marion McClinton.

Now, at the beginning of a new century, August Wilson makes us wonder how far the blacks have come since the beginning of the century before.