“Gem of the Ocean” playing at the Marin Theatre Company tells the story of six people with Aunt Ester, played by the very talented Margo Hall, as the center of the action. The other five circle around her, but her story cements the historical and emotional center. She is supposed to be 285 years old, someone whose birth goes back to 1619, the date that African Americans came to North America. She is a spiritualist who is said to perform miraculous cures.
In “Gem of the Ocean” playwright August Wilson describes the lives and stories of the people living in The Hill District in the first decade of the last century. It is set in 1904 yet there is often a pre-chronological dipping into the past with historical reference to the African Americans’ history and travails. “Gem” was actually only written in 2003, two years before Wilson’s death.
Wilson wrote ten works in his century-cycle plays about African Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They were planned to be about each decade. Some of the most famous of them are “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” about the 1910s,“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1920s) and the Pulitzer Prize winning “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson”.
One of Ester’s cures is for Citizen Barlow, performed by Namir Smallwood (Marin Theatre debut), a seasoned actor from Chicago where he has played in the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters. Never over-acting, he creates his role slowly and authentically as the run-away from Alabama where he was forced to commit a murder. For this he wants to be exonerated; Aunt Ester performs just such deeds.
Eli (David Everett Moore) is the reasonable and steadying influence who protects Aunt Ester from outsiders. The more revolutionary Solly Two Kings (Juney Smith) tells long stories of his and his people’s history. Black Mary (Omoze Idehenre) does the laundry for Aunt Ester and is the sister of Caesar Wilks (Tyee Tilghman), the antagonist who is the most cynical and realistic character in the play.
The well-dressed and handsome Caesar has done well in this environment but not without questionable actions. Now he is a prosperous baker and landlord who makes money from the people working in the mill. He’s the realistic one when the more revolutionary ideas of striking the mill comes up, he merely explains that a strike will put many people out of work. The fire that does take place goes back to Pittsburgh history.
The only white character is the comical peddler Rutherford Selig (Patrick Kelly Jones) whose antics lighten the dark story being told. His gestures as well as those of all the actors are choreographed as if in a ballet or Noh play. In fact at one moment some of them don masks as in ancient Greek theater reminiscent of some of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic plays.
It’s not apparent whether Wilson wrote these gestures into the script, the simultaneous pointing of the fingers, sweeping of the arms and so on, or that the director Daniel Alexander Jones added them. Jones tries to make this a “theatrical jazz” piece as he explains in the program that Wilson’s plays are part of the American Songbook with their “contours, tones and rhythms.” The actors sing and perform dance-like movements at time and the music before and in-between scenes is certainly jazz. The music adds a rich overlay.
“Gem of the Ocean” is a perfect beginning of the Pittsburgh Cycle. It is also a finishing off of the entire story as it puts many events in the later plays into perspective. The Marin Theatre Company, under the Artistic Direction of Jasson Minadakis, is committed to produce all 10 of the plays.
“Gem of the Ocean” is a straight-forward kind of family drama at the same time that it is a mysterious and Yoruba-based mythological exercise. The altar and the pin-up boards in the lobby explain much about the history as well as about Yoruba belief.
“Gem of the Ocean” runs through February 14, 2016 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, CA. 415 388 5208 or go online.