Theater: Race relations

‘Gem of the Ocean’ dramatizes 20th century African-American experience

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Margo Hall plays Aunt Ester in MTC’s ‘Gem of the Ocean.’ Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Here in the North Bay, there’s more good news than the recent rains. The opening weeks of 2016 have also been exceptional ones for local theatergoers. First came Ross Valley Players’ moving Holocaust classic, The Diary of Anne Frank, whose run at the Marin Art & Garden Center’s Barn ends on February 7. Simply staged with a strong non-union cast, the production’s emotional honesty never wavers and (as an added bonus) ticket buyers will find it relatively easy on the wallet or purse. Community theater at its best.

On the other hand, if you want to move up a notch, Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company (MTC) has just opened August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the first (in historical setting, but not date of authorship) of the late double Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist’s series of 10 plays that trace, decade by decade, the African-American community’s difficult journey through the 20th century. True, the entry price at MTC is a bit higher, but if you go you will be rewarded with a production of such quality, freshness and professionalism that its impact will probably remain with you for months to come.

Set in 1904, Gem is predominantly a play of ideas and atmosphere, rather than plot. What exists of the latter revolves around a large old house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that local authorities have allowed to become a no-questions-asked “sanctuary home” for former slaves arriving from the South. In the opening scene we meet the residents. There’s Black Mary (Omoze Idehenre), the formidable cook/housekeeper, who keeps the place in some semblance of order; Eli (David Everett Moore), a kind of household assistant; Solly Two Kings (Juney Smith), an imposing escaped slave from Georgia who hates white Americans because they don’t accord him the respect he enjoyed during a prior stay in Canada; and a new arrival from Alabama, Citizen Barlow (Namir Smallwood). Visiting from outside are Caesar Wilks (Tyee J.Tilghman), Black Mary’s brother, who has gained respectability as a Pittsburgh law enforcement officer, and Rutherford Selig (Patrick Kelly Jones), a white travelling salesman whose easygoing demeanor has earned him a ready welcome.

Presiding over this motley assemblage is a small woman with a huge reputation—Aunt Ester (Margo Hall)—who not only is renowned for her ability to “cleanse people’s souls” if they are troubled by past misdeeds, but also lays claim to being 285 years old!

The immediate issue that concerns the group is a report that a black brother has leapt to his death from a bridge over one of the rivers that divides the city after he was charged with stealing a bucket of nails on a construction job. Two questions buzz like bees. Did he really steal the nails? Even if guilty (which is uncertain), why was it necessary for him to kill himself? Eventually, answers are provided that have repercussions for everyone. But the real beauty of Wilson’s script is his ability to use those two questions as starting points for examining a whole host of issues that continue to affect race relations in today’s America.

Obviously, this structure demands actors of the highest quality, and MTC has them. In particular, Hall’s portrayal of Aunt Ester is a triumph of epic proportions, but they’re all superb. Director Daniel Alexander Jones’ staging is effective—especially in the pivotal visit to the “City of Bones” segment—but his attempt to impose a fusion of speech, dance gesture and jazz background (a style he calls “theatrical jazz”) comes across as needing more consideration of its benefits and, if still desired, several more months of exploration and rehearsal. Luckily, though, its work-in-progress feel shouldn’t interfere with your appreciation of what is indisputably an outstanding company achievement.

NOW PLAYING: Gem of the Ocean runs through February 14 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; boxoffice@marintheatre.org.

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