Wednesday, April 13, 2022

TheatreWorks stages August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean"


Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) cleanses the soul of Citizen Barlow (Edward Ewell). (Kevin Berne photo) 

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is staging August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” the first part of his 10-play chronicle of the 20th century Black experience.

This one takes place in 1904 in the home of Aunt Ester Tyler in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where most of the cycle takes place.

Even though slavery was abolished 41 years earlier, Jim Crow laws still oppress Black people, especially in the South. Oppression also is rampant in the mill where many of the Hill District’s Black residents work.

Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) is the 285-year-old spiritual adviser to the Black community.

Residing with her are her gatekeeper, Eli (Jerome Preston Bates), and her housekeeper, Black Mary (Porscha Shaw).

Soon to join them is Citizen Barlow (Edward Ewell), a troubled young man recently from Alabama who wants Aunt Ester to wash his soul.

Among their frequent visitors and friends are Solly Two Kings (Kim Sullivan), a former slave who was part of the Underground Railroad, which guided slaves to freedom in Canada; and a white traveling peddler, Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt).

Black Mary’s brother, Caesar Wilks (Rodney Hicks), stops by occasionally, but he’s not welcome. The play’s villain, he’s a rigid, by-the-book police officer who looks for any excuse to arrest someone.

This 2003 play is ably directed by Tim Bond, who took over as artistic director two years ago, just as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted everything.

Thus this is his first chance to direct at TheatreWorks, and he has chosen a topnotch cast and artistic team.

Like most of Wilson’s plays, this one is talky, especially in the first act, which moves slowly as it sets the stage for what’s to come. It’s not always easy to follow because the characters’ accents can be hard to understand at times.

On the other hand, the second act is riveting, highlighted by Citizen Barlow’s spiritual journey to the City of Bones. It’s meant to cleanse his soul and to evoke the history of a people who suffered greatly, starting with their terrible voyages from Africa.

This ritualistic scene, presided over by Aunt Ester and aided by Eli, Black Mary and Solly, is mesmerizing with its music and movement reminiscent of a Black church service.

The cast has no weak links, but the standout clearly is Oglesby as Aunt Ester, who’s convincing as the ancient and wise dispenser of relief for troubled souls.

Bond previously directed an impressive production of “Gem of the Ocean” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., in 2007, also with Oglesby in the lead.

The set is by William Bloodgood with costumes by Lydia Tanji, dramatic lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcarez, and music and musical direction by Michael Keck.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Gem of the Ocean” will continue through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit