The pre-Broadway opening of August Wilson's most recent play in his African-American chronicle was delayed two weeks in Boston after the director fell ill and had to be replaced. The defection of a major cast member about two weeks ago, requiring reassignment of roles and recasting a supporting character was also a potential stumbling block. But the opening of "Gem of the Ocean", the first play chronologically of ten interrelated family dramas set in Pittsburgh over the last 100 years revealed a fully-realized vibrant three hour work, thanks to the experience and commitment of all involved. The play, the ninth in this saga to be produced, will no doubt be tightened before the show begins previews in NYC Nov. 4. The sense of history which looms behind all of Wilson's storytelling and informs the development of his unique character's is as strong as ever, and the production, the sixth to be done at the Huntington Theatre, fits comfortably into this period playhouse.The color tone of the set echoes the feel of the auditorium.
The only cast member without experience playing Wilson's work is "Gem..." headliner, Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad, almost unrecognizable as the mythical Aunt Esther, an elderly woman born into slavery who just may be 285 years old, but who in any case carries on memories and traditions which trace back to the griots of West Africa. Esther, whose name is not without biblical significance, is both healer and historian for this black community struggling to survive in the gritty mills of turn of the last century Pittsburgh. Her performance is a far cry from her last appearance at the Huntington as the lead in "Blues for an Alabama Sky". The focus of the action however is between one Citizen Barlow, a recent emigre from Alabama played by James Earl Jelks who appeared in the role in L.A., and Solly Two Kings, a former "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, played by Anthony Chisolm, who played that role in Chicago at the Goodman. Chisolm, originally cast as Eli, another "conductor", strides through the show clad in a tattered Union Army great coat. He last appeared at the Huntington in "Jitney" (1998), in a role for which he later received an Obie in NY(2000) and an Olivier(2002) in London. Jelks, a younger actor, could well be on his way to similar awards. His moments during the extended "City of Bones" healing sequence which galvanizes the second act are spell-binding.
Almost as powerful is Tony winner(1996) Ruben Santiago-Hudson's appearance as Caesar, the villain of the piece, or at least the source of much of its melodrama. Santiago-Hudson was previously seen at the Huntington in "Seven Guitars"(1995). He manages to make his justification of his exploitation of the rest of his community understandable, if hardly palatable. Eugene Lee, who stepped into the role of Eli on short notice brings appropriate dignity to the role as Esther's protector. He's appeared in "Fences" in Atlanta, but between his extensive stage, television, film, and playwrighting careers, hasn't made it to Boston before, but will hopefully be seen here again. The only non-African-American member of the cast is Raynor Scheine, playing Rutherford Selig, the traveling peddler, a role which he first played in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone", seen at the Huntington, and which he played in "Gem..." at the Goodman. The other woman in the cast LisaGay Hamilton starred on Broadway in "The Piano Lesson". Her role here as Esther's housekeeper, and possible replacement in the community, is a bit muted, but several strong moments.
The success of this drama, which Wilson is still working on, is enhanced by the cast's familiarity with the author's dialogue style, incorporating extended storytelling and poetic folk imagery. There's a certain amount of coming and going, but only minimal confrontation onstage, though both acts end with a conflagration offstage. Replacement director, versatile Kenny Leon, who originated the role of Citizen in Chicago and directed Rashad in "Raisin..." on Broadway , had a strong base to work from given experienced Wilson director, Marion McClinton's solid preparation. Leon did however have to commute between Boston and Washington D.C. to work on the show, since he was also preparing a revival of Langford Hughes "Tambourines to Glory" to open in there in the middle of the month. The Huntington's previous experience with Wilson's shows, plus Leon's thrtee previous shows here, made the project more doable. Set designer, David Gallo, who has an Obie for Sustained Excellence, had designed "King Hedley II" for both the Huntington and Broadway, as well as "Jitney", here, there, and in London. Lighting designer Donald Holder also did both shows here, and has received numerous nomination in NY, as well as a Tony for "The Lion King". Sound design from Dan Moses Schrier and original music with a period flair from Kathyrn Bostic complete this convincing production. Not too mention impeccable period costuming by award-winning costumer Constanza Romero who just happens to be Mrs. Wilson.
The historical freight which this prequel to Pulitzer prize winner Wilson's more familiar plays carries make the effort not the best introduction to his work, but his deftness with dialogue and characterization remain satisfying. Boston audiences will be able to see a story which follows next in the saga just up Huntington Avenue in two weeks. Up You Mighty Race is presenting "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in the Main Auditorium of the Massachusetts College of Art with a strong cast of local actors. It should also be noted that the understudies for the Huntington's production include local award-winners Jacqui Parker, Vincent E. Siders, and Dorian Christian Baucum, who may well be seen performing in this script here in future seasons. Those who want to see the tenth play in this cycle, "Radio Golf", can catch a premiere at Yale next spring.
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