The last time I saw August Wilson alive was in the bathroom of the old Guthrie, minutes before the premiere of Fences, which until last night was the first and only production of Wilson’s work the Guthrie had ever done. As Wilson was washing his hands, and I mine, I felt compelled to say something, so I said the only thing I really could, which was, “Good luck tonight.” Most people in that situation would say “thanks,” but Wilson didn’t; he just nodded his head and gave me a little half-smile, as if to say, “Luck will have nothing to do with it.”
That was in 1997, and it was an historic night because until then The Guthrie had shunned Wilson’s work, an oversight many thought was egregious (and some thought outright racist), especially when the theater responsible for developing and expanding upon Wilson’s genius—Penumbra—was sitting right in the Guthrie’s back yard. During the Guthrie’s Garland Wright era, tensions were strained even tighter because Wright had publicly acknowledged that he did not particularly like August Wilson’s plays. Wright further maintained that Wilson was a contemporary playwright who had yet to stand the test of time. The Guthrie was a “house of classics,” Wright maintained, so it was under no obligation to produce the work of a playwright who had yet to achieve “classic” status.
Unfortunately, Wright took this position while he was busy producing such contemporary (and most would argue lesser) white playwrights as Max Frisch and David Storey, so his argument rang a bit hollow. The bottom line was that Wright didn’t like Wilson’s work, and that was that.
Until Joe Dowling came along. One of the first things Dowling did when he became the Guthrie’s artistic director was to extend the community olive branch to Penumbra, allowing Lou Bellamy and company to produce Fences on the Guthrie thrust, to widespread acclaim. For reasons I cannot fathom, and am reluctant to read anything into other than “oops, our bad,” that production of Fences does not appear in the official record of Guthrie plays—at least not the one on their website. Nevertheless, since 1997 Wilson’s reputation has continued to grow; his Century Cycle is rightfully considered one of the greatest achievements in American letters; and Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy has established himself as the most direct spiritual link we have to Wilson’s artistic soul.
So it should come as no surprise that Gem of the Ocean is itself a gem. Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, it is chronologically the first of the Century Cycle plays, and it addresses the struggles faced by African Americans whom the law has technically set free, but who are finding that the American power game is rigged. Freedom means paying for your own rent and food, which means getting a job, which means working for someone else—someone who is most likely white—and if the job they give you doesn’t put enough money in your pocket to cover rent and food, it means you have to steal a few things to survive, which, according to the same laws that set you free, makes you a criminal. “What good is freedom if you can’t do nothin’ with it?” laments Solly Two Kings—which is a theme that runs through the heart of Wilson’s Century Cycle.
Like many August Wilson plays, Gem of the Ocean starts slow and builds, but build it eventually does. Wilson takes his time establishing characters and laying the seeds of what will become the plot, and, like all of his plays, Gem ultimately delivers a powerful psychic wallop. The entire play takes place in the home of a woman named Aunt Ester, who is supposedly 287 years old. At first, the question of her age is understood as a metaphorical connection to the past, but by the end of the play that connection becomes alarmingly literal.
I am being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that in every way, Penumbra has brought it’s A game and A team to this play. James Craven (Solly Two Kings), Abdul El Salaam El Razzac (Eli), T. Mychael Rambo (Caesar), and Marvette Knight (Aunt Ester) have carried so many Penumbra productions over the years that it’s great to see them owning the Guthrie’s Proscenium Stage. The rest of the cast Austene Van (Black Mary), Terry Hempleman (Rutherford Selig), and Cedric Mays (Citizen Barlow) are solid as well, proving once and for all that Penumbra and director Lou Bellamy are the finest and most nuanced interpreters of the August Wilson canon in the entire world—and that is no exaggeration.
Gem of the Ocean continues at the Guthrie through May 18.