A Great and Mighty Ship

ETC starts at the the beginning of August Wilson's play cycle with 'Gem of the Ocean'

Feb 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Director Ron “OJ” Parsons knows something about playwright August Wilson. In fact, Parsons met Wilson on numerous occasions before his death in 2005. He’s in town to stage Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC), a year after assembling a production of Radio Golf for the same theater.

One could make a steady career staging the works in Wilson’s 10-play “Century Cycle” chronicling each decade of the 20th century, and Parsons is doing just that. He’s directed productions of seven of them so far, several more than once. Last fall he staged Radio Golf for Pittsburgh Public Theatre, completing that company’s monumental task of presenting all the plays in the cycle. It was especially meaningful since Wilson was a Pittsburgh native and most of his plays are set in that city’s Hill District, a neighborhood very much like Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati.

“That was really an experience,” Parsons says. “I was able to make it really Pittsburgh, with Pittsburgh references, with the Steelers thing.”

One of the characters in Radio Golf is a fan of the football team, so the real estate office set was festooned with Steelers paraphernalia.

“Audiences loved that,” Parsons recalls, and then with a quiet smile adds, “Wilson’s family came to see the production, and they really liked it.”

Although Gem of the Ocean (2003) and Radio Golf (2005) were Wilson’s last two plays, they represent the bookends of his cycle. While Radio Golf, which attracted strong attendance for ETC’s production last spring, is set in 1997, Gem of the Ocean goes back to the first decade of the century, with events in 1904.

Gem lays the foundation for many subsequent stories, and several characters are earlier generations of characters in subsequent tales. The African Americans who populate Gem are struggling to define a new identity in the post-slavery era of the early-20th century. Like many others, Citizen Barlow has ventured north to seek his fortune. A visit to Aunt Ester, the Hill District’s matriarch, on the eve of her 287th birthday, leads him to a mystic vision of the “City of Bones” beneath the Atlantic where the bodies and souls of many captured people remained after the crossing from Africa to America centuries earlier.

“The reason for us to do any play is excellent writing with an important story to tell,” says D. Lynn Meyers, ETC’s producing artistic director. “Wilson deserves to be on the same shelf as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller and celebrated as one of the greatest American playwrights. Radio Golf summed up the political atmosphere we’ve come to find ourselves in through Wilson’s play cycle. However, it’s equally as essential to do Gem because it shows us how we got there. Having Ron back to direct after his beautiful work last year adds enormous integrity to the project. His knowledge and passion for the material is unparalleled.”

Meyers’ assessment of Wilson gets no argument from Parsons, who cites “the richness of the characters and the stories he tells. The language is so beautiful and romantic and poetic, like Shakespeare. The journey August takes us on is a very rich and fulfilling one, a journey of a whole people.”

But when it comes right down to it, Parsons says, “They’re just good plays.”

Discussing Gem, Parsons says, “This play is about the exploration of a people and a discovery of spirit and soul. Everybody in the play is discovering something about themselves.”

He focuses on the character of Aunt Ester, whose presence and memory are evoked in many of Wilson’s subsequent plays. She personifies the sweep and memory of the black experience in America, and her mythic, multi-century life is an indicator of her linkage to history. The house later threatened by demolition in Radio Golf is Aunt Ester’s legendary residence at 1839 Wylie Ave., in the Hill District; the elderly man who stands between the house and a wrecking ball is Elder Joseph Barlow, born in 1918, the son of Citizen Barlow, the central character in Gem of the Ocean.

Aunt Ester is the cornerstone of memory and catalyst for reconnection with history.

“She represents the spirit of the ancestors,” Parsons explains, “of the African-American people and their journey — the Middle Passage, the journey from Africa to the New World. A lot of people have immigrant stories. This play tells the history of the Middle Passage. A lot of people don’t think about all the people that didn’t make it across the ocean. This play is a discovery of that. We find the heart and essence of those people in this play.”

Parsons recruited Cheryl Lynn Bruce, a legendary Chicago actress, for the role of Aunt Ester.

“I directed Pearl Cleage’s Flying West at the Court Theatre a few years ago, and she played an older character, a wise woman,” Parsons says. “I knew that slipping into this role would not be a problem.”

It’s Bruce’s ETC debut and her first time to play Aunt Ester, but her three-decade career of national and international work on stage, in films and for television has equipped her for the complex and iconic role. The cast also includes four other Chicago actors appearing at ETC for the first time: Ronald L. Connor as Citizen Barlow, Morocco Omari as Caesar Wilks, A.C. Smith as Eli and Charlette Speigner as Black Mary. Alfred Wilson, who played Elder Joseph Barlow in Radio Golf at ETC in 2008, is back as Solly Two Kings, and ETC veteran Jim Nelson is playing Rutherford Selig.

Asked to describe Gem of the Ocean, Broadway actress Phylicia Rashad offered a poetic summation: “It’s like a great and mighty ship riding the waves of history. With sails at full mast, blown by the winds of clarity and tireless resolve onward toward its charted destination, the port of right understanding.”

To which one needs to say, “Amen.”

GEM OF THE OCEAN, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, opens Wednesday and continues through Feb. 22. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

Read about ETC's Lynn Meyers as one of CityBeat's 2008 Persons of the Year here.