The Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, CA, has revisited the spiritual roots of African-American history by reviving August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” The beautifully written script along with a talented cast took the audience on a journey back in time to revisit the hardships of fighting for freedom and the struggles that African Americans faced throughout history.
This is the Rubicon’s first play by August Wilson, which also happens to be the first of the Wilson 10-play series, “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The series featured several recurring themes, including oppression, isolation, and the pursuit of personal integrity in the midst of corruption.
James O’Neil has been chosen to direct the show; audience members seemed to be very impressed with his staging and casting. Anthony J. Haney gave a spectacular performance as Solly Two Kings, the Underground Railroad conductor. Early in the play, Haney passionately delivered one of the play’s most memorable lines, “What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?”
Lillias White played Aunt Ester, the most imaginative character of them all. Aunt Ester is a 285-year-old spiritual healer who served as the preservation of racial memories dating all the way back to the very first slave ships.
According to the LA Times, it is Chris Butler who gives the most memorable performance as he portrays a character that has turned away from his African American roots and toward a dehumanizing greed. Butler’s character, Caesar Wilks, even convinces himself to embrace slavery.
In contrast to Wilson’s usual naturalistic style of plays, the second act of “Gem of the Ocean” combines gospel with voodoo and shamanistic elements. During this act, the spiritual healer takes cast member Keith Arthur on a “soul washing” journey on the “Gem of the Ocean,” a mystical slave ship. The journey was quite literal in the play but represented the metaphorical journey of African Americans during such an overwhelming struggle throughout their history.
Another element in the play that set it apart from Wilson’s previous works was the use of interior monologues. Throughout the play, characters gave long, passionate, soulful monologues that were actually occurring inside the characters’ heads rather than spoken out loud to another cast member. Wilson used these long speeches as a chance to convey a message that transcended race, time, and culture.
The play will run every Wednesday through Sunday until June 10th. According to Rubicontheatre.org, the play lasts an approximate three hours and tickets may sell for up to $54.