Gem of the Ocean
"Gem of the Ocean" takes over the Old Town Theatre in the fourth production of Cygnet's 2012-2013 season. Written by the esoteric two-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright August Wilson, "Gem" is the first of a series of ten plays dubbed "The Pittsburgh Cycle."
Set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, the childhood home of Wilson, the Cycle Series portrays the unique experience of African-Americans in every decade of the 20th century. "Gem of the Ocean" is the first in the series and takes place inside the home of Aunt Ester (Brenda Phillips), a neighborhood matriarch, former slave and cleanser of souls.
When a man by the name of Citizen Barlow (Laurence Brown) desperately seeks the services of Ester looking for forgiveness for his own crimes, he and all those passing through Ester's home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, are forced to confront the various themes of ownership: ownership of one's destiny, ownership of one's past, ownership of one's actions, and ownership of the world we have created. In 1904 while still living in the dark shadows of slavery, these themes can be difficult for many to face.
Eli (Grandison Phelps III) is Aunt Ester's caretaker and "Black" Mary Wilkes (Melva Graham) her apprentice and housekeeper. Both aid in protecting and helping Aunt Ester lead those seeking solace and forgiveness on a mythical journey aboard the slave ship "Gem of the Ocean" to the fictional City of Bones.
On this journey, Citizen Barlow must confront his people's past as well as his own crime and find forgiveness and inner peace. Once freed from his shackles, he can take up the mantle left to him and continue to help others on their own spiritual journey.
Victor Mack directs Cygnet's 2013 rendition and is no novice when it comes to all things August Wilson. Having staged these abstruse works before at the Portland Playhouse, his experience helps to bring a refined sense of understanding and insight to this production.
Coupled with a grant provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, this version includes post-show forums to discuss and performances open to local high school students to introduce a greater understanding of Wilson's work to the San Diego community.
A superb cast is assembled to stage "Gem" including a brilliant performance by Brenda Phillips as Aunt Ester. Her calm, controlled demeanor and wit gives the sense that her 285 year-old character is somewhere between sagacious and omnipotent.
Graham's Black Mary, the protégé and heir apparent to Aunt Ester's mission of cleansing and salvation, kept the audience on edge as she openly displayed her own subdued frustration and rage. She expertly portrayed Mary's own struggle to suppress this and find the inner peace that she had helped so many others achieve.
Antonio "TJ" Johnson as Solly Two Kings, former slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad, is superb and ultimately heartwarming as the infatuated friend of Ester. Eschewing his given name, like many former slaves of the time, and taking the names of King David and King Solomon, Solly Two Kings expertly understood the passion, the tension, and the anger that bubbled beneath the surface of the Hill District despite his simple way of speaking and living. Johnson mastered this role, captaining his complex character through some rather murky waters.
Advanced beyond community theater but sitting just the outside cusp of becoming a large playhouse, Cygnet manages to stage shows rivaling those of the more renowned theaters in the area. This show is no exception.
Thoughtful set design by Andrew Hull tied the theme with the era and helped paint the picture of an industrial town and society in transition. Shelly Williams's costuming and Peter Herman's wigs and makeup brought a simple truth to the characters on stage and Chris Rynne's lighting design provided a mysteriousness and other-worldly air to a play deep in mystery and mysticism.
A wonderfully entertaining and thoughtful way to make August Wilson's work more accessible to a more general audience, Cygnet's "Gem of the Ocean" is a mystical delight you simply won't forgive yourself for missing.
"Gem of the Ocean" runs through Feb. 24 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, in Old Town San Diego. For info or tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit www.cygnettheatre.org.