Smile Politely

Seven things to know about Illinois Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean

To be honest, I added this production to my calendar as soon as I read about it in the Krannert Centre for the Performing Arts season line-up. Gem of the Ocean is an important play, written by an equally important playwright. But as I dove into my research, preparing to include it in my list of five things in arts in October, I discovered so much more about what makes Illinois Theatre’s upcoming production a must-see event. 

Herein are seven things to know about the play, this unique production and those spearheading it.  All combined to lure you in and invite you to join me in experiencing what promises to be a thought-provoking narrative told in interdisciplinary collaboration between theatre and dance. 

The play itself

Gem of the Ocean is the first in a ten-play series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which explores the African-American experience in the twentieth century. Moving from one decade to the next, Gem of the Ocean begins in 1904, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The local African-American community is reeling from a recent false arrest gone wrong. Wrongly accused of stealing of a bucket of nails, the man jumps into the ocean rather than confess to a crime he didn’t commit.  Becoming a martyr to his co-workers, his final act of defiance inspires both a strike and a riot, resulting in arrests and shootings. Set against this timely tale of injustice is the larger metaphor of 285-year-old Aunt Ester, a former slave, who keeps tradition and history alive for her people. Aunt Ester is also a cleanser of souls, or as some traditions would call her, a sin eater. Enter Citizen Barlow, who comes to town seeking Aunt Ester’s aid in absolving his long-carried guilt. The play follows Citizen, Ester, and the town through towards journey redemption.

Gem of the Ocean premiered at the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, Illinois, in 2003. It was performed around the country and, in 2005, was nominated for a Tony Award. 

The playwright

August Wilson famously said that he was influenced by “the four Bs”: blues music, writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, playwright Amiri Baraka, and, painter Romare Bearden. He later added Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to the list. 

From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.

Wilson cofounded Pittsburgh’s Black Horizon Theatre in 1968, going on to produce work that celebrated the history and language of Black people. 

His later work Fences, earned him both a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitizer Prize in Drama. 

Guest director Chuck Smith

The guest direction of long-time Wilson collaborator Chuck Smith alone makes this production worth seeing. Smith is a member of the Goodman Theatre’s Board of Trustees and also one of its resident directors.  He also serves as resident director at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, Florida, and is a member of the American Blues Theatre Company. His previous work with Krannert Center includes the direction of Barbecue and a staged reading of Inheritance

Smith has received the Paul Robeson Award in 1982 as well as the 1997 Award of Merit from the Black Theatre Alliance of Chicago.  He recently received an Honorary PhD from Governors State University, his alma mater.

We are extremely lucky to experience a director of Smith’s caliber and knowledge of Wilson’s oeuvre. 

A unique collaboration with Dance at Illinois 

Co-choreographers Kemal Nance and Endalyn Taylor will be debuting newly choreographed work for the City of Bones ensemble, featuring dancers from the Dance at Illinois program. Coming off the high that was Studiodance II, I am so excited to see the narrative power of dance at work in this powerful collaboration. 

Nance, a performer, choreographer, and scholar of African Diasporan Dance, is  an assistant professor in the departments of Dance at Illinois and African American Studies at the University of Illinois.

Taylor has danced, choreographed, and served as director for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She is also an advocate and national spokesman for Black ballerines across the globe. 

Lisa Gaye Dixon

Dixon expertly juggles two important roles in this production: department of theatre producer, a relatively new appointment, and the role of Aunt Ester. She has graced many significant stages, notably, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the New Globe Theatre and at the Goodman Theatre.

Her production philosophy is inherently collaborative and inclusive, noting that the department of theatre is “continuing to focus its efforts on creating physical, aural, and visual spaces that are welcoming to human beings of all varieties.” This mission, combined with her passion and experience, have me excited for her incarnation of Aunt Ester. 

My two cents

Sadly, this production of Gem of the Ocean couldn’t be coming at a more poignant moment.  While clearly steeped in history and tradition, its narrative opens up conversations we need to have. And on a brighter note, I can’t think of a better creative and production staff to bring us this important experience. I’m excited for the journey I’ll embark on this Saturday night. I know it will be transformational. Stay tuned to the arts section next week for my review. 

Production notes

This production includes the smoking or tobacco products, smog effects and adult language and is intended for mature audiences only.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana
October 17th through 27th
Get tickets online

Cover photo from the Facebook event page

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