Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Gem of the Ocean" ☼ ☼ ☼

August Wilson's master work is a ten play cycle dealing with the lives of the black population of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where Wilson grew up. Each decade of the Twentieth Century gets one play, with "Gem of the Ocean" taking place first. Set in 1904, in the home of the shadowy 285-year-old Aunt Esther, the play is rich in historical significance.  Wilson completed "Gem" in 2003, two years before his death.

Margo Hall is terrific as Aunt Esther, the role originated on Broadway by Phylicia Rashad. She gives down-home depth to the character hinted at (but never seen) in other plays in the cycle. Excellent as well are Omoze Idehendre as Black Mary and especially Namir Smallwood as Citizen Barlow.

There are many themes in play here, but perhaps the most relevant is how difficult the lives of black people have continued to be after slavery, in 1904 on up to the present day. As Solly Two Kings (played by Juney Smith) says, himself old enough to have been born into slavery: "What is freedom? I got it, but what is it?

Director Daniel Alexander Jones is using the original unedited script with which Wilson always began his rehearsals. He would write extra and winnow it down as time went on. So this Marin Playhouse production contains scenes the author eliminated, segments never before seen. It does not help: the production runs only fifteen minutes shy of three hours. Act One holds our attention while Act Two does not. The music is great but the pace of the show drags, especially in Act Two.

 RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Gem of the Ocean" Three Stars. It's definitely worth seeing, especially for August Wilson scholars. We love this cast. It's always a pleasure to watch Margo Hall. But that's a really long Act Two.

"Gem of the Ocean"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED Through February 14

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