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Friday, April 13, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Theater Review

Wilson illuminates black experience

Seattle Times theater critic

No one writes like August Wilson did.

There is no hyperbole in that statement. None.

From the opening moments of "Gem of the Ocean," when a riled-up young drifter pounds on the door of Pittsburgh crone Aunt Ester, you can be nowhere else but in Wilsonland — where poetry is spoken across the kitchen table, and the health of one's soul is as (or more) essential than the endurance of one's body.

Wilson's ninth play in his decade-by-decade series about 20th-century African-American experience, "Gem of the Ocean," is now in its Northwest premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The production is an auspicious event for several reasons. It completes the Seattle Rep's laudatory staging of Wilson's entire 10-play cycle. It marks the graceful directing debut of actress Phylicia Rashad, who won a 2005 Tony nomination for her portrayal of the titanic Aunt Ester in the Broadway stand of "Gem of the Ocean."

And it is another invitation to enter the richly imagined, pungently cosmic world of a unique dramatist, who wrote "Gem" during his last years, which he spent living in Seattle.

Set in 1904, in the rambling Victorian home Aunt Ester shares with her devoted factotum Eli and protégé/housekeeper Black Mary, "Gem of the Ocean" unfolds in a time when legalized slavery has been outlawed for 40 years. But, as one character rightly observes, "People are having a hard time with freedom."

On stage

"Gem of the Ocean," by August Wilson, Tuesdays-Sundays through May 6, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$48 (206-443-2222 or

The task of securing and fully embracing one's freedom is a reverberating theme here. Liberation means different things to different people. To the guilt-ridden drifter Citizen Barlow (played by Khalil Kain), it means having the shamanic Aunt Ester "wash his soul" clean so he can get on in life. To Ester's wily friend Solly Two Kings (William Hall Jr.), freedom means heading back to his native Alabama, to save his sister from a new plague of post-Civil War servitude.

To Black Mary (Crystal Fox), freedom means picking up the healer's mantle from Aunt Ester, and steering clear of faithless men. And for Black Mary's brother Caesar (Stanley Wayne Mathis), a local "boss man," it means enforcing a vicious code of justice — and identifying more with his people's oppressors than their liberators.

Towering over all this roiling turmoil, like a mighty sheltering oak tree, is Aunt Ester. In a powerhouse performance, Michele Shay gives Ester the wisdom, irascibility and spiritual amplitude befitting one of Wilson's most remarkable characters.

Practically singing out Ester's big orations (which are indeed like spoken operatic arias) and performing a thrillingly mythic exorcism, Shay never wavers as a pillar of righteous fire. She also delights as a cranky old gal grumbling at Mary's cooking, and as a loving maternal figure who disarms an intruder by asking him if he's more partial to cornbread or biscuits.

Whatever hand Rashad had in shaping Shay's commanding performance, the result is glorious. But Rashad applies thoughtful treatment to the entire play — which, like other Wilson works, could veer off into a melodramatic ditch with the wrong director at the wheel.

That doesn't happen here largely because Rashad and her astute design partners — Susan E. Mickey (costumes), John Iacovelli (sets) and Allen Lee Hughes (lights) — keep the focus squarely on whichever actor is having his or her say. This approach presents us with many tableaux and not much stage movement, but a potent sense of the inner life of each character (reinforced by Kathryn Bostic's original music).

Hall is a standout (in his first turn at the Rep in many years) as one of Wilson's heroic rascals — a former Underground Railroad captain who now, comically, sells dog dung for a living. Todd Jefferson Moore does a dandy job with the sole white (and very sympathetic) figure, the roving peddler Rutherford. Mathis is as disturbing a villain as Fox and Kain are likable. The one actor who stumbled a bit on opening night was Woods, mainly because he was hard to hear.

For all his genius, Wilson's play-crafting tends to falter when his speeches get bloated, his plotting jerky and his endings awkward.

"Gem of the Ocean" is not immune from such deficiencies. Yet consider what Wilson brings to the table: rare, lyrical insight into the great American quest to forge a more perfect union, with freedom for all.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company



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