August Wilson-s new play, Gem of the Ocean is his ninth in a projected series of works that chronicle the lives of Black Americans in each decade of the 20th century. Each of Wilson-s early plays featured a separate and distinct set of characters, allowing similar themes and ideas to bridge generations; recently, however, characters have started making repeat appearances, suggesting that the individual works are less important than the grand project as a whole.
Gem of the Ocean takes place in Pittsburgh-s Hill District and it features the character of Aunt Ester. First appearing in Two Trains Running, Aunt Ester is legendary among the people of Pittsburgh as an elderly woman with supernatural gifts. It is clear from the words and scenes that Wilson writes for Aunt Ester that he is as much under her spell as the inhabitants of his beloved Hill District. In this way, Aunt Ester is fast becoming August Wilson-s Falstaff, and if this is the case Gem of the Ocean is easily his Merry Wives of Windsor, a piece written specifically so a beloved supporting character can take center stage.
Taking full advantage of this is actress Phylicia Rashad, whose performance is indeed the gem in an otherwise murky ocean. Almost completely unrecognizable, Rashad inhabits every crease and wrinkle of Aunt Ester-s character. Her speech is marvelously controlled, as she wrings emotion out of each phrase without ever dripping sentimentality. Ms. Rashad-s attention to detail can be especially noticed in her hands. During an excellent Act I monologue, the subtle twitches and clenches of her fingers are as moving as Wilson-s poetic words about Aunt Ester-s dead son, Junebug.
Unfortunately, there is not enough room in Wilson-s Ocean for the other actors or their characters. Peter Francis James tries valiantly to bring depth to the role of Caesar, the town-s contemptuous boss-man; but ultimately, the role buckles under the apparent need for a stock villain. The part of Citizen Barlow, the play-s young hero, is ably performed by John Earl Jelks, yet his function is little more than a fresh set of eyes to be opened to Aunt Ester-s powers.
With characters given names like Caesar and Citizen, it is immediately clear that this is not August Wilson-s most subtle work. Clich-s cling like barnacles to almost every scene and the dialogue only occasionally shows the warm, conversational intimacy that glows in most of his plays.
The one new facet of Wilson-s work is an elaborate set piece during Act II where the meaning of the play-s title is revealed. To describe it would be to ruin its impact, but it shows that Wilson still has great theatrical imagination, and it provides Marion McClinton a chance to show his directorial talents
Early in Gem of the Ocean a character says: -Lot-s of stuff that shine like gold, ain-t gold.- August Wilson-s newest play may not be gold, nor even a gem of a play, but its unpolished elements make the best moments, most of which feature Ms. Rashad, shine that much brighter.
Gem of the Ocean runs through September 7th at the Mark Taper Forum
This has been James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.