at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson
The excellence of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production serves to point out the flaws in this first episode of August Wilson’s 10-play series on the Afro-American experience in America in the 20th Century. The evening oozes importance and great meaning. The cast rises to the challenge. Unfortunately, this penultimately written saga tries to do too much and fails to do much. The play confuses instead of illuminates.
Set in Pittsburgh in1904, the story deals with the ambiguity of the new de jure freedom for black people which runs up against the de facto economic and physical control of their lives. The central character is a magical 285-year-old “spiritual advisor” (Greta Oglesby as Aunt Ester). In her house we meet the woman she hopes to entrust her secrets and magic to (Shona Tucker as Black Mary), Aunt Ester’s close friend and ex-slave (G. Valmont Thomas as Solly Two Kings), Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper (Josiah Phillips as Eli), a newly arrived African-American refugee from Alabama (Kevin Kennerly as Citizen Barlow), Shona’s brother who has been co-opted by the white mayor to enforce tough justice in the black community (Derrick Lee Weeden as Caesar), and the white housewares peddler (Bill Geisslinger as Rutherford Selig).
The production does an excellent job with each character, and OSF handles the magical dream-like scenes clearly and well.
The actors have strong voices, and the moments of spirituals sung by the characters are mood-creating and haunting. The simple staging focuses the audience on the movement and the words. The performance is steady, straight forward, and powerful. One magic moment involves a boat ride which could easily be hokey in less professional hands, but at OSF you felt the tossing of waves during the narrated storm.
Each performer deserves his or her own moment of praise.
Oglesby balanced the physical and spiritual sides of her character without a jar. Her voice raised in occasional song is worth the price of admission itself!
Thomas is so big and so perfect in his movement that his equally on-target speaking is deceptively skilled and almost under appreciated. By turns he is gentle and subtle and then angry and dangerous. But, he’s always underplaying and drawing the audience to him.
Weeden owns his thin, mean, conflicted character who is no Caesar and all Cassius. Tucker radiates youth and growth in her apprentice role. And, Bill Gesslinger plays a character and not himself. (Okay, it sounds like faint praise but after seeing him do the same character in many different plays, I was relieved to see something else in Gem.)
But, even with top-quality in cast, direction, and staging, the result remains a production tour de force in service of an uneven piece of theater. Plot lines were introduced, tended, and left unresolved. New complications arose in late scenes which were neither needed nor handled. The play ended at least three times, but even when the lights went up, there are many “yes, buts” to be answered.
Instead of powerful theater, we were exposed to overpowering ideas. These were exquisitely important ideas about American and its people. But, bringing them forward and leaving them on stage is not enough.
The artists who gave us the evening deserved the standing energetic ovation they received. But, the overall Gem experience is only