by Lynn on August 25, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Until Oct. 9. 2022.

Written by August Wilson

Directed by Philip Aikin

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Cameron Davis

Original music and sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Cast: David Alan Anderson

Jason Cadieux

Nathanael Judah

Allan Louis

Monica Parks

Jeremiah Sparks

Sophia Walker

A gem of a play and production.

The Story. First some background. American playwright, August Wilson set himself a herculean task: to dramatize the African-American experience over the twentieth century in 10 plays, one play for every decade. The 10 plays collectively are called, The American Century Cycle. Gem of the Ocean is the first play in the series.

It’s 1904. We are in Pittsburgh’s Hill District—August Wilson’s home town and neighbourhood—1839 Wylie Ave. to be exact. This is where Aunt Ester Tyler lives. She is the revered matriarch of the neighbourhood. She is also the emotional, spiritual and historical center of the play and the production. She is the conduit for all the characters in the play to find their lost souls, their connection to their roots and their connection to their collected history, as once enslaved African-Americans. And each character has a deep story.

Aunt Ester is 285 years old. There are a lot of aspects to Gem of the Ocean that we take on faith and Aunt Ester and her long life and fraught history are a few of them. Aunt Ester has taken in a young woman named Black Mary to help her in the house, cleaning, cooking and taking care of things. Aunt Ester is a mentor on life for Black Mary.

Rutherford Selig is a travelling salesman of pots and pans. He is the only white character in the play. He deals often with Black Mary who buys goods from him and is not afraid to tell him when she thinks he is charging too much. She doesn’t accuse him of cheating her, but she does stand up if she feels she’s been charged too much. Selig is not a sleazy man. He’s respectful, especially to Aunt Ester. And he’s a good friend of the people he deals with—and I sense he deals with both Blacks and white people.

Solly Two Kings is a man who left his family in the South to come North to escape the ill-treatment of whites against African-Americans. He’s a righteous man who defends the underdog when he can. But then he hears from his sister in the South that she needs him to come and take her North because she’s afraid of what is happening there. He is about to set off but there is a hint of other trouble. 

Eli is an older gentleman who does odd jobs around the house and ensures Aunt Ester has her rest and only sees people when she is scheduled to see them.

Citizen Barlow is one such person who has come from Alabama so that Aunt Ester can cleans his soul. We find out he stole something, and there is an implication of a more serious crime. Citizen Barlow has been suffering from guilt and seeks help from Aunt Ester. She says he must go to the City of Bones, a mythical place of the dead—it’s a journey that requires he travel through time and space via Africa and the Atlantic Ocean to connect with his African ancestors who were saved from slavery because they died first.

Gem of the Ocean is deeply spiritual in its many references and connections to the past. But the character who shredded my heart is Caesar Wilks. By sheer will and determination Caesar made a success of his life. He is a successful businessman taking every disappointment and roadblock and finding a way to make it work for him.

He always dresses in a suit, tie and stylish hat, but he’s never flashy. He is also the local lawman and here is the problem. He is scrupulous about maintaining the law at all cost. He is known for having killed a young man who stole a loaf of bread and was trying to run away. The young man obviously needed the bread for food for his family. But that didn’t matter to Caesar. The young man broke the law and had to be punished.

He reminds me of Javer in Les Misérables—the lawman who hunted Jean Valjean because he stole a loaf of bread, and had absolutely no compassion about Jean Valjean’s crippling poverty. We learn that Caesar was not always this way.

His sister is Black Mary and she berates him for having changed from a caring man to one who is so blinkered that only upholding the law is the only way. She says she can’t recognize her brother anymore when she looks at this stubborn, unflinching, unforgiving man. I wondered what it was that twisted Caesar up so badly that he felt being encased in that smart suit would give him respect?

Caesar owned the local mill and treated his African-American workers with disrespect and disdain. He paid them less than what they deserved. He referred to them by the ‘N’ word and referred to himself as a Negro. That is so telling. No wonder there was unrest at the mill. The workers went on strike for better wages. This caused trouble in the district and it erupted into a violent situation that affected everybody.

Playwright August Wilson has written a taut, heart-squeezing play full of rich language and engrossing characters who care deeply for each other except for Caesar.  

The Production. Set designer, Camelia Koo has created a rustic, efficient set in which a long worn, wood table takes the focus of the space. The table is really made of a few square tables pushed together to take up the ‘whole room.’ There are pots, pans, pails, books and other useful tools under the table. There are simple wood chairs around the table. Aunt Ester (Monica Peters) dispenses wisdom around that table. Black Mary (Sophia Walker) cooks meals in a pot at that table. Guests are invited to sit around it and experience Aunt Ester’s hospitality.

These are hardworking, simple people and Laura Delchiaro’s clothes reflect that. The clothes are functional, aprons and long dresses for the women, work pants and shirts for the men, with thick shoes/boots.

Director Philip Akin has captured the throbbing heart of the play in this production and through his terrific cast. The relationships of the characters are detailed in their creations. The respect for most of the characters for each other is so vivid.

Rutherford Selig—nicely played by Jason Cadieux—always takes his hat off in reverence to Aunt Ester. As the center of the play Monica Parks plays Aunt Ester with a deliberate slow pace as befitting her considerable age. Monica Parks illuminates the well-earned wisdom of Aunt Ester and only later does she reveal a stunning bit of information about her past. It’s a performance that is regal in its bearing. Aunt Ester has seen the world change drastically in her 285 years. She knows the importance of compassion and generosity. She has shown that for Black Mary but she can also be a task master when it comes to Black Mary, until one day Black Mary just blew up. Sophia Walker as Black Mary stood up to Aunt Ester and itemized each complaint Aunt Ester had for Black Mary’s hard work. Black Mary wanted respect for what she had done not complaint. Aunt Ester paused and said calmly, “You took your time.” A wonderful scene between two gifted actors. Aunt Ester makes every moment into instruction for others to be the best they can be. She pushes Black Mary to stand up for what she believes in and stand her ground, even if she’s dealing with the revered matriarch of the house.

Solly Two Kings is played with quiet resolve by David Alan Anderson. He wears a long, worn coat and carries an imposing staff. He champions the underdog in his own way that might cause him some danger. He answers the call for help when his sister needs him and he sets out to go South to get her.

As Caesar, Allan Louis is meticulous as the fastidious lawman. He is fierce in his demand for respect and to uphold the law no matter what. That is his flaw and shreds my heart. Allan Louis plays him without a shred of sentimentality. There is no glint of wanting sympathy for this character. Allan Louis is fierce in his conviction that his way of doing things is right, without variation. Even when his sister berates him for his unbending attitude and is concerned for the loss of his better, younger, compassionate self, Caesar is unmoved.  

All the performances are stunning in their own way. As Eli, Jeremiah Sparks is stooped slightly, but moves with determination when he has to answer the door or do a chore. When Citizen Barlow (Nathanael Judah) comes to the door desperate to see Aunt Ester, Jeremiah Sparks as Eli is firm that no one sees Aunt Ester until Tuesday. These people are protective. But Citizen Barlow is consumed with guilt and needs to be cleansed. Nathanael Judah plays Citizen Barlow with a youthful worry, there is respect and a need to confess his ‘crime’ and get absolution of a sort.

When Citizen Barlow has to take his journey to the City of Bones Aunt Ester presents an origami boat made of a folded piece of paper. When we realize what that paper represents, besides the boat, it’s one of the many breath-taking moments of the production.  

Citizen Barlow stands at one end of the table and it then separates lengthwise into two pieces that are not straight edged, but have a kind of wave carved into the separating sections. Citizen Barlow then walks between the separated sections of the table as if Citizen Barlow is indeed crossing the Atlantic Ocean. One could also think of crossing the parted Red Sea to find sanctuary—August Wilson has loaded his plays with biblical suggestions.

The separation of that table is just one element of this masterful production that illuminates director Philip Akins’s vivid imagination and his ability to plum the depths of the play.  

August Wilson writes of migration, slavery, forced separation from loved ones, love and respect for ones’ fellows and generally kindness. The characters never feel sorry for themselves. They are driven by their stories and backgrounds but are never drowned by them. Caesar is another case, but he too just grabs your heart rather than turns us away.

Stunning play and production.

Comment. August Wilson’s plays are so quintessentially American and certainly when they chronicle the African-American experience through the 20th century. But there is a lot of wisdom for others to glean through his lyrical, mystical, beautiful work. Gem of the Ocean so worth a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see it at the Shaw Festival.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until: Oct. 9, 2022

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, (1 intermission)

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