Gem of the Ocean” sailed to Mountain View over the weekend, taking viewers on a journey through August Wilson’s indelible poetry and politics.
TheaterWorks Silicon Valley artistic director Tim Bond, in his directorial debut for the company, crafts a jewel of a revival, an insignificant but also provocative staging of one of Wilson’s rarely seen works.
The late great playwright made famous the realm of the African American experience in the 20th century in a landmark series of 10 works known as the Pittsburgh Cycle. Works include “Fences,” “Seven Guitars,” “Piano Lessons” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
“Gem of the Ocean” is the first installment of the series. Set in 1904, it is the origin story of Aunt Astor (Greta Oglesby), the nearly immortal guardian of Wilson’s beloved Hill District. Deeply allegorical and musical, this piece is steeped in myth and the power of memory.
Bond cleverly captures the symphonic nature of the language here, from the salty tales of the city to the wrath of his nemesis, Caesar (Rodney Hicks), a hero of the Underground Railroad, from Soli to Kings (charismatic Kim Sullivan). The master of iron
Caesar has no sympathy for the struggles of his people, only to be finally freed from slavery by the shackles of poverty. Freedom means little, as Solly says, “it just means you have a long line to hoe and you have no plow.”
As these titular figures collide, and their city is headed to erupt in tragedy, a lost youth named Citizen Barlow (Edward Ewell) finds a portal to his own redemption in Astor’s parlor at 1839 Wylie Avenue. seeks.
Aster, about 300 years old, is the keeper of mysteries, the healer of souls. She soon leads Citizen to the mythical City of Bones, where the souls of Africans who died on slave ships live under the sea. Barlow looks at their faces with horror, realizing that he sees his reflection in the history of his people. This painful truth, that we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, echoes through Wilson canon. In his plays the past and the present are always intertwined, as they are in reality.
Oglesby emerges as the regal ester, blending straight-up humor with the ferocity of a high-priest. Sullivan infuses Solly with both tenderness and fire. He is a leader born in an era that only expects the enslavement of a black man. Hicks enters a well of ignorance and anger as Caesar invokes the letter of the law without mercy.
Despite these sensitive performances, the production misses some of the epic emotional force that its subjects demanded. For example, the chemistry between Citizen and Esther’s caretaker Black Mary (Porsha Shaw) isn’t as deep as it should be. The closing scenes fall short of the visceral sadness they can elicit.
And yet, the sheer clarity of Wilson’s vision of American history gives the production a brutal resonance. In the wake of the past few years, from the assassination of George Floyd to the most recent Supreme Court hearing, it’s hard to shake the sense that Wilson’s genius was predictive in nature.
As the citizens slowly come to watch, you cannot move forward until you face the fear of the past. It may almost break you to do so, but in a country haunted by caste there could be no way further.
Contact Karen D’Souza at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Gem of the Ocean’
Presented by Theaterworks Silicon Valley, directed by Tim Bond, by August Wilson
By: May 1
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Health & Safety: proof of vaccination is required; Must wear a mask inside the theater
Running Time/Content: 2 hours, 30 minutes; an interval; Contains strong language, strobe lighting, fake smoking
Ticket: $25-$95; 877-662-8978, theaterworks.org