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August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean premieres

July 1, 1993

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean premieres

By Edith McCauley, Theater Critic

The Gem of the Ocean, the ninth in August Wilson’s works exploring the experience of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century, nearly completes his project. The Goodman Theatre has presented every play before their openings in New York beginning with his Pulitzer Prize winning Fences.

“An Evening With August Wilson,” moderated by Haki R. Madhubuti, gave us an opportunity to gain insight into the work and values of theatre’s most dedicated playwright. On April 21, Mr. Wilson chatted with Mr. Madhubuti and answered questions from the audience. Since he grew up in Pittsburgh, he sets most of his works there. When asked how he constructed a play, he said, “I find each character and throw it into a pot, then that character tells their story.”

Raised by his mother, his value system comes from her example. After winning a radio contest, she was given a used washing machine as a prize when the station discovered she was black. Refusing, she said, “Sometimes nothing is better than something.”

Wilson cited her when refusing permission for the filming of Fences several years ago. Hollywood bigwigs wanted a local director. “I wanted a black director, so negotiations came to an end.”

His list of awards includes the Pulitzer Prize for Fences. Unique is his high school diploma issued by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Leaving high school after being accused of plagiarism for a too well-written essay, he spent the next four years in the library acquiring knowledge and a background preparing him for his life’s work. A gracious gentleman, Wilson spoke with humor and dignity…a very special evening.

Opening April 28, The Gem of the Ocean runs only until May 24. Set in a dilapidated mansion in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, it begins the day before Aunt Ester’s 285th birthday. A recurring, mystical figure in Wilson’s plays, she recounts the past and predicts the future. Powerfully played by Greta Oglesby and representing African-Americans from slave times to the present, Oglesby shows us a woman who speaks for all.

Gem of the Ocean is a perfect example of characters defining themselves and giving the play its structure. Anthony Chisholm (Solly Two Kings) and Kenny Leon (Citizen) converse. Sally’s story of a flight to freedom and the consequences show Wilson’s adept use of language. The excerpt appeared in the Sunday, April 27 issue of The New York Times. “Set in Pittsburgh, some 40 years after the Civil War, those subjects, nevertheless, are as fresh as yesterday to the characters.”

Other members of the household, Eli, played by Paul Butler, and Black Mary, played by Yvette Ganier, care for Aunt Ester. Peter Jay Fernandez is Caesar, Mary’s brother, whose position as the local law officer puts him at odds with the black community. The struggle from slavery leaves its indelible mark and Jim Crow emerges. The need to control those citizens seeking a place in society overrides any semblance of justice.

The richness of Wilson’s work makes it unique in theater. As the ninth decade comes to fruition, only one remains to complete the cycle.

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