By Brianna Chu
Gem of the Ocean is the first of Pulitzer Prize award-winning playwright August Wilson’s Century Cycle. The cycle is comprised of ten plays, each of which is set in a different decade of the 19th century, capturing the lives and turmoil of everyday African-Americans in each decade.
A Noise Within’s productions routinely excel in costume and set design; and for the most part, Gem of the Ocean does, too. Aunt Ester Tyler’s (Veralyn Jones) house is a cozy, colorful, and welcoming abode. The day-to-night transitions, with the change in lighting through the windows, kept scene transitions more organic. The only scene in which it felt the set design could be improved was during Citizen’s (Evan Lewis Smith) metaphorical journey to the City of Bones. While the underlighting, blocking, and sound cues for the simulated whipping on the ship was incredibly effective and impactful, the reveal of the sail felt underwhelming, with the projection of bones against a blue background seeming almost cartoonish in the face of Aunt Ester’s descriptions. Some of the blocking felt purposeless for the characters: would an elderly woman really walk across her own living room to better listen to a guest, and then immediately get up again when she herself wanted to talk? On multiple occasions, the blocking seemed like it was driven not by the character’s purpose, but simply for the actors to move and allow the audience to have more opportunities to see the actors due to the space’s unique in-the-round seating. And at times, from where I was sitting, the blocking still didn’t provide us an opportunity at our angle to see everyone, either – the actors still blocked each other from the view of the audience. If you’re lucky enough to sit in the center proper, I’m sure you’d be fine, but the sides might miss out here and there.
Credit must be given to Jones for her performance as the mystical matriarch Aunt Ester, but the standout performances were in the supporting cast, namely Solly Two Kings, Black Mary Wilks, and Caesar Wilks, from Kevin Jackson, Carolyn Ratteray, and Chuma Gault respectively. Jackson’s Solly is an irrepressible, larger-than-life freedom fighter, in direct opposition to Gault’s Caesar, who is terrifyingly entrenched in anti-black sentiment, even stating outright that “some of these n*****s was better off in slavery.” Gault must be applauded for managing to portray Caesar in a way that does not simply come across as steeped in villainy, but one who eloquently communicates his own twisted logic for believing in the justice of the law at all times. Even though Aunt Ester owns 1839 Wylie Avenue, Black Mary, played by Ratteray, truly feels like the center of the sanctuary, encompassing the best of strength and vulnerability and a worthy successor to Aunt Ester. Her response to Citizen remarking “you’re too young of a woman not to have a man,” her stand against Aunt Ester’s nitpicking, and her disavowal of Caesar as her brother were some of my favorite moments from the show.
Gem of the Ocean raises questions of what freedom, citizenship, heritage, and identity mean in America. It’s certainly amazing how many lines from a play set in 1904 are still relevant 115 years later, and while the play’s conclusion might not feel satisfying, that is the reality of the state of equality and freedom, even today; the work isn’t done yet. The stories shared, especially those of Solly and Eli (Alex Morris), and the conversation they provoke, are worthwhile and critical to hear.
A Noise Within’s run of Gem of the Ocean ends November 16. Buy your tickets here: anoisewithin.org/play/gem-of-the-ocean.
A Noise Within
3352 E. Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107