August Wilson play beautifully told
Andrea Vernae and Henry Noble star in "Gem of the Ocean" the historic play by Black playwright August Wilson now showing at Portland Center Stage through April 3.
We often speak of Black history as though it is somehow an offshoot of American history—so the 10-play series by the great August Wilson depicting Black life in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh through each decade of the 20th century is about Black history, distinct from American history. It is somehow other, an offshoot of American history.
I love August Wilson’s history cycle and would never miss an opportunity to see one of the plays. Each is an illuminating and specific immersion into Black experience. I want others to experience them. But Portland Center Stage’s superb production of “Gem of the Ocean” helped me to feel the further importance of experiencing August Wilson as a chronicler of American history and present. It is an important window into the history of all of us, told beautifully from the bottom.
Though written toward the end of Wilson’s life, “Gem of the Ocean” chronologically opens his 10-play cycle; it is set in 1904 in the home of Ester Tyler, a matriarch whom characters mention as the venerated Aunt Ester in several of the plays set in later decades. Aunt Ester is the Black community’s healer and seer, the holder of spiritual wisdom whom members of the community visit when they need their “souls washed.” The keeper of “blood memory,” the wisdom of ancestors dating back before and during enslavement, Aunt Ester’s gift includes the ability to hold what is most hard to hold, and to help those who come to the red door of her house to locate themselves within that larger history. In this profound play, Wilson offers us a visit behind the red door, a gift to savor if you realize that each of us needs our soul washed too, and to meaningfully locate ourselves in that larger history in some way. Perhaps even in watching the play, we might come to the recognition that here the Black matriarch, a sacred storyteller known as a griot in many African cultures, has much to teach all of us.
As embodied by Treasure Lunan in this production, Aunt Ester is a wonder. She is formidable and clear and convincingly pulls the other members of the ensemble (not to mention the audience) into her orbit. he becomes the energy center whenever she enters a room, and you are drawn to watch for how her energy shifts with each character. When she estimates her age as 285, it feels inexplicably true; she is an archetypal dangerous old woman who functions outside of time and outside what the rest of us understand.
As with all the plays in the cycle, Aunt Ester is surrounded by a vibrant ensemble, all riveting in this production. Eli (Victor Mack) minds the door of the house, informing each visitor definitively that “this is a peaceful house”; Black Mary (a riveting Andrea Vernae) is Aunt Ester’s protégé and also the keeper of the house, and also sister to the aptly named Caesar (Bobby Bermea), who has leveraged his fortunes by gaining an appointment from the white community as the keeper of order in the Black community.
Caesar’s law-and-order speeches reverberate with current applications. Aunt Ester softens most with Solly Two Kings, a frequent visitor to the house with whom she maintains a flirtation; Solly, Eli, and Ester speak of their experience of enslavement in a way that communicates a shared knowing born of unthinkable struggle. Selig (Isaac Lamb) is a white merchant who regularly visits the house; he misses a lot but is astute enough to recognize that Aunt Ester is on the right side of any dispute.
Much of the action centers on a visitor to the house, a young man named Citizen Barlow (Henry Nobel), who is carrying a burden of guilt and is desperate to have his soul washed. His spiritual journey (including the shifts in his interactions with all the characters, especially Black Mary) is a focus of the play’s action as Aunt Ester, with the cooperation of the other ensemble members, guides him on a spiritual quest to connect with the ancestors who died in the middle passage. The journey takes him to a place he would avoid, which should resonate for those who are paying attention, including those of us who did not descend from those who were enslaved. As Aunt Ester guides him to see, these ancestors took something horrific and decided to make something beautiful of it. The journey transforms him.
The play takes audiences on a deeply spiritual journey—and in the hands of this stellar cast and crew under the direction of Chip Miller (with a special shout-out to costumes designed by Wanda Walden and wigs designed by Iran Michael Leon that help us see the beauty of the characters while grounding us in place and time), the prophetic wisdom of the master playwright is held with courage and skill. Done well, this play in particular asks a lot of the players—they must go on the journey themselves, and I am going to guess that more than mere acting is required. Wilson has built the play to tap into deep knowing, and I will be thinking about this one for a long time.
Perhaps particularly here in the U.S., where all of us are primed to function as though our own specific lives are the only things that matter, this play invites us to think more deeply, to enter the soul washing waters of ancestral memory and commitment to all that is true. His beautiful production offers that opportunity through April 3.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.