Memphis theatergoers have been treated to several of August Wilson's best plays over the last several years: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Done Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Fences, to name a few. In 2007, a few especially fortunate fans were treated to Goodnight Mr. Wilson, an intimate solo performance at Rhodes College by Charles S. Dutton, one of the foremost performers of Wilson's work. Now Playhouse on the Square and Rhodes are teaming up to present Gem of the Ocean, the first chronological installment of Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which provides an impressionistic, decade-by-decade view of the African-American experience across the entire 20th century.
Gem, one of Wilson's more difficult plays to stage, is set in 1904 against a background of mysticism, worker exploitation, and fiery revolt. The Civil War is still a fresh wound, allowing the playwright to explore the question "What good is freedom if you can't do anything with it?" Gem is also about the personal spiritual journey of one Citizen Barlow, who is sent by the 285-year-old spiritualist Aunt Esther on a perilous, soul-cleansing journey to the undersea City of Bones.
Gem of the Ocean is directed by Tony Horne whose innovative staging of The Wiz recently netted an Ostrander Award for best direction of a musical. A strong cast includes the always excellent Lazora Jones as the ancient Aunt Esther, Emmanuel McKinney as her caregiver Eli, and Ron Gephart as Selig, a white peddler who is friendly with Esther.
"Gem of the Ocean" at Playhouse on the Square from September 23 through October 16th. playhouseonthesquare.orgThis post has been edited to reflect a change in the cast.