What could a play set in 1904 about the African-American Pittsburgh neighborhood of the Hill District have to offer modern Southern Californian audiences? A hell of a lot.
By Melanie Hooks
A Noise Within, Pasadena’s resident troupe dedicated to keeping the classics fresh and accessible, does just that with their current production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” Part of a series of ten plays, each portraying a decade of the 20th century (you might know of “Fences” from this series, whose film version recently netted Viola Davis an Oscar), “Gem” begins forty years after slavery’s abolition – but far from the utopia once envisioned by the older generation, who are now elderly but were young people when first freed.
As actor Evan Lewis Smith commented in a recent question and answer forum, his character Citizen Barlow, a young man, has no memory of the institutionalized horror that central character Aunt Ester (powerhouse Veralyn Jones) lived. In fact, he has no idea of his personal story beyond his own short life, a brutal, confined one of manual labor, his wages shorted, stolen and ultimately used to keep him in servitude – a cycle that leads to his violent rebellion and arrival at Aunt Ester’s door, asking her to “wash his soul.”
Could a visit to the mythical City of Bones, an African mystical place Aunt Ester alone remembers, ground Citizen and lead to his redemption? Does the context of our suffering help us to accept and transcend it? Jones believes so, and the cast’s lively discussion of the importance of story as a center of self lent great insight into this American classic that deserves a broader reputation. As one audience member commented, “This is our story. The American story.”
If you’ve only read of Wilson but haven’t experienced much of his work live, this is a chance not to be missed. Multi-layered characters of different generations are treat enough alone. Lifetime friends Eli (Alex Morris), the protector, and Solly Two Kings (Kevin Jackson), the rascal – join Ester and traveling salesman Rutherford Selig (Bert Emmett) as one of the most grounded and charming coffee clatches on the modern stage. The first three all started life incarcerated in Alabama before the Civil War, and their stories of escape and coming north would tempt any listener to beg for more.
Wilson’s pace allows for this sort of dwelling in memory. In fact, the action that pushes the play forward – Citizen’s crime and his striving for redemption – play more like a subplot in the first half. Once that bomb ignites after intermission, however the power of Ester’s mysticism takes center stage – a fascinating mix of African tales, music and Biblical imagery.
Director Gregg T. Daniel and Choreographer Joyce Guy take full advantage of the thrust stage, pushing Citizen’s journey of the mind into the audience, using the fly spaces like one of last season’s “Argonautika” battle action sequences. It’s a thrilling, heady mix of light (Jean-Yves Tessier) and sound (Martin Carrillo) design that pushes the ‘solid house’ sets (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) around like toy blocks. Truly it’s a spectacle that only theater can provide. These characters don’t allow their minds or spirits to be caged, and the production invites us into their inner worlds as few do.
The dialect of Alabamans-now-in-Pitt presents a special challenge, and coach Andrea Odinov deserves a special nod for making the idiom-filled script accessible for modern audiences living a world away from the characters’ surrounds.
Also a special treat: the young, incredibly self-possessed Black Mary, brought to life by Carolyn Ratteray. Wilson’s words provide the highway, but Ratteray drives the car – and it’s a V8, especially in scenes with the equally young and un-aware Citizen. She runs circles around his simplistic understanding of sexual power – a raucous audience moment of sheer, very modern pleasure. Add to that the searing self-righteousness of her brother Caesar, local enforcer for the law, referred to by other characters as an ‘overseer’ and played with genuine understanding of ‘collaborator’ sympathy by Chuma Gault, and you have a truly layered family – one that feels more like real life than many a modern show.
A Noise Within hopes to bring Wilson’s entire cycle of ten ‘Century’ plays to life; don’t be the person who misses the first one. Your inner storytelling soul will be sorry.
Gem of the Oceon
• Written by August Wilson
• Directed by Gregg T. Daniel
• Cast: Veralyn Jones, Evan Lewis Smith, Kevin Jackson, Carolyn Ratteray, Chuma Gault, Alex Morris, and Bert Emmett. Click for full cast and ensemble.
A Noise Within
3352 E. Foothill, Pasadena, CA 91107
• Through November 16
• Free parking.
• General admission: $25 – $78 (discount tickets for some dates available @ goldstar.com)
Purchase tickets here.
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