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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — August Wilson is undoubtedly one of the great national treasures of American theater. His legendary works earned him two Pulitzers and a Tony, and it’s easy to see why. His ability to so accurately and realistically capture the African-American struggle of the 20th Century while invoking poetry, gravitas, and even magic was incomparable and led to some of the greatest works of the American stage.

Now, the OKC Department of Parks and Recreation has partnered with director Isaiah J. Williams for an intimate and transcendent performance of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at the Civic Center’s Cityspace Theater through December 12th.

While perhaps not as well-known as some of Wilson’s other works like “Fences” or “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” both of which have had Oscar-nominated recent films, “Gem of the Ocean” is easily among his most striking and powerful works.

We’re presented with a single room in a small house outside Pittsburgh in 1904. A young man arrives, looking for the renowned Aunt Ester, said to be nearly 300 years old with god-given powers of redemption, and encounters a host of characters all brought together by Ester, and by their own guilt and baggage.

The action never leaves that one room, not even when things begin taking a turn toward fantasy as Aunt Ester introduces the fabled City of Bones and the horrifying history of the slave ship Gem of the Ocean.

Slavery and freedom are the main issues here, but not always the way that audiences have come to expect or even understand. The older characters remember life before Emancipation, before the war, and the life-threatening work of leading others to freedom. The younger characters don’t fully understand. 

Ayana Cole-Fletcher and Mikael Dashawn in “Gem of the Ocean”

How can you appreciate freedom when you never experienced bondage? How can you appreciate freedom when everything in your world is still keeping you and your people down?

America at the turn of the century, even in the North, was a brutal and unforgiving world for the former slaves and the first generations born free. Wilson deftly breaks down the societal, economic, and authoritarian forces that keep the black population in terrified servitude in the opening scenes, making sure that his audience understands the high stakes of simply being poor and black then, much as now.

It would be easy to expect that this story was written long ago, early in Wilson’s career, during the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but “Gem of the Ocean” was in fact created near the end of his life and premiered on stage in 2003. The same spiritual struggles are eternally recurring.

This production, presented in the surprisingly tiny “black box” Cityspace Theater in the basement of the Civic Center, is a largely local undertaking. Director Isaiah J. Williams is himself an OKC native that cut his teeth on productions in Chicago and Louisville before returning home to work with the Performing Arts division of OKC Parks and Rec.

Williams has married his vision of a shockingly intimate, almost claustrophobic reading of the play with a multi-generational cast of both pros and newcomers, all approaching the work with palpable reverence and sincerity.

LaTasha Featherstone is the centerpiece of the evening, her performance of Aunt Ester both radiant and quietly understated in equal measure. A potentially centuries-old, magic wise-woman could so easily be portrayed as stoic or detached, but Featherstone imbues her Ester with as much infinite love as quick temper and emotional outpouring.

Alan D. Cole in “Gem of the Ocean”

Special mention should be made of Alan D. Cole in the role of Caesar, the complicated and dangerous lawman, by turns strictly unforgiving and openly hypocritical. If the piece has a villain, it’s Caesar, but Cole is able to take the spite and resentment of his dialogue and twist it so believably into a challenging complexity of character that reflects the fear, uncertainty, and spiritual compromise of the era perhaps better than any other. And all with an acting background that began just earlier this year.

August Wilson’s work always cuts deeply and precisely, and the richness of his dialogue is practically foolproof, but this entire cast (of which there are only seven performers) is able to find unspoken nuance and sentiment that goes deeper than the script. This is surely to the credit of Williams’ direction and ability to encourage and coax the best of his players.

Though the opening night performance that I attended had a few of the expected hiccups (problematic stage doors and a couple of momentarily flubbed lines,) it was still immediately clear that this is a fantastic, heartfelt example of just how transformative and engulfing even the barest production of live theater can be when the cast is on fire and the direction is pitch-perfect.

Of course, the beauty of Wilson’s writing helps, as well.

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” directed by Isaiah J. Williams and presented by OKC Parks, is running through December 12th at Cityspace Theater in Civic Center Music Hall. Tickets, schedule, and information can be found at okcciviccenter.com.

Last Updated December 14, 2021, 12:49 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor