An essential journey

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"Gem of the Ocean." Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

You need to drive to Pasadena and see a 3 hour play.

Okay, I know that's a big ask so let me break down why the trip is worth it.

Greg T. Daniel's production of "Gem of the Ocean" is important... and it carries the weight of a ton of history both locally and for us as a nation.

"Gem of the Ocean" is part of August Wilson's 10 play Pittsburgh Cycle that chronicles the African-American experience decade by decade of the 20th Century all centered in Pittsburgh. "Gem of the Ocean" is oddly situated as both the first and almost the last. It's the first because it's set in 1904 - the first decade - but it was ninth of the ten plays August Wilson wrote so it carries the weight and experience that came before. The past is a profound force.

It's also the play closest to slavery. One of the characters carries his broken chains in a pocket for good luck.

It's not the most accessible of the cycle because in some ways it's the most dramatically adventurous. At its heart is a journey to the "City of Bones," a journey wrought from the Middle Passage and all the enslaved Africans who died making that brutal Atlantic Ocean crossing. This abstract ritual is all part of cleansing one of the character’s souls - part baptism, part initiation, part reconnection - and it busts into what would otherwise be a recognizable August Wilson play.

One moment we're listening to the poetic ensemble and then suddenly the walls disappear and we're in the middle of the ocean.

Since the play premiered in 2003, it’s had time to breathe and the audience can catch up to what Mr. Wilson was attempting. Sitting in the audience in 2019, 400 years after the first slaves were brought to our shores, the play, like all classics, takes on weight and resonance.

This production is not just part of Wilson's larger canon, it's also the latest chapter in a remarkable series of productions from director Greg T. Daniel that, like Wilson, have been chronicling the African American experience one play at a time. Not only has Mr. Daniel been building a stunning body of work, he's done it across Los Angeles' theaters. "Les Blancs" at Rogue Machine; "Wedding Band" at Antaeus; "Her Portmanteau" at Boston Court - the list goes on and on. What's connected them all are stellar ensembles and direction that reveals not only a sensitivity to the plays but a deeper overarching purpose. Again like Wilson, Mr. Daniel is chasing after something, striving to give voice and share experience.

As a result, you feel the weight of this history, this commitment. You understand, even if only viscerally, that these are artists who are travelling to their own "City of Bones" along with the character and sharing with us, in our own troubled times, the weight of history and how terribly important it is to be "right with yourself."

Go see this play. Set against this journey - driving to Pasadena is easy.

"Gem of the Ocean" plays at A Noise Within in Pasadena through
November 16th