Lissa Tyler Renaud*
Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson. Company: The Lower Bottom Playaz. Venue: Flight Deck, Oakland, California. Premiere: February 1, 2019. Directed by Ayodele Nzinga and Cat Brooks. Set design: Aaron Swar. Costumes and props: Regina Evans. Lighting: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Support: California Arts Council, Oakland Cultural Funding, East Bay Community Foundation, and Alameda County Arts Council.
A gift to the Bay Area’s theatre landscape, the Lower Bottom Playaz didn’t so much perform Gem of the Ocean as collectively channel it. With experience producing Shakespeare, this company has found a niche no other can fill in quite the same way with the plays of August Wilson, often called the American Shakespeare. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wilson (1945–2005) won his first Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1987, and another Pulitzer Prize in 1990.
Wilson’s famous Century Cycle, also called the Pittsburgh Cycle, tells the story of 100 years of African American life, one play for each decade of the twentieth century. Although Wilson wrote Gem ninth (premiere, 2003), it is chronologically the first in the cycle, set in 1904. Only a matter of decades had passed since the American Civil War (1861–65); no character in the play escapes living in the palpable, terrible shadow of slavery.
The play unfolds largely around the kitchen table of a sanctuary house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an area created by insidious policies that corralled African American citizens into segregated neighborhoods. The ingenious single set and evocative costumes were pitch perfect, quietly suggesting good taste hampered by poverty and creating a believable visual world for what’s to come.
The magnetic field that holds together the sanctuary household is Aunt Ester Tyler. Youthful crone, white witch, Black shaman, magicker, Ester is said to be 285 years old, with a gift for washing souls and guiding them to the floor of the Atlantic, where the Gem of the Ocean slave ship lies, in a city made of the bones.
Young Citizen Barlow, come north from Alabama, seeks soul-cleansing help from Ester Tyler. Ester was played by Cat Brooks, much loved as a longtime actress of stage and screen, and a well-known political activist; Citizen Barlow was the intense, lyrical Stanley Hunt (Best Actor Award, NY film festival, 2013):
Accepted into Ester’s home, Citizen Barlow joins the close circle around her: Solly Two Kings, born into slavery, now selling dog excrement to survive (the impressive, tender Reginald Wilkins); Eli, Solly’s former Underground Railroad cohort, now Ester’s protector (the quietly elegant Evander Johnson); Black Mary Wilks, housekeeper and Ester’s protégée (the sweet, feisty Venus Morris); Black Mary’s brother, Caesar Wilks, a baker turned ruthless constable (the irresistible Pierre Scott, here the villain, elsewhere the savior); Rutherford Selig, peddler and loyal friend of the household (the endearing Christopher Weddle). These actors give the impression of being in a symbiotic relationship with their characters, and as a troupe, they are the embodiment of an “acting ensemble.”
Even in group and two-person scenes, the playwright gives each character a long monologue that could easily get the better of an actor. All terrific; here’s just one.
Oakland is a city, and also an identity. This intrepid theatre group is grounded in the experience of West Oakland. In its heyday, the 1940s–60s, West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms district was “The Harlem of the West,” a cultural center for African Americans, its venues attracting the best jazz and blues musicians nationally. The story of the area’s demise is full of greed and bigotry, and later, the suspicious introduction of drugs.
Twenty years ago, the Lower Bottom Playaz started playing in parking lots and homeless shelters: Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin; Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. Losing their more recent West Oakland performance spaces to gentrification, they have landed downtown at the Flight Deck’s 99-seat black box theatre. Having done the Century Cycle once before, this production marks their commitment to doing it all over again, with moxie:
In January of 2016, Ayodele Nzinga became the only director, the only producer, her Lower Bottom Playaz, the only theatrical entity of any size anywhere in the known world to fully stage the complete works of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle in chronological order . . .
Indeed, in the eye of this storm of talent is Ayodele Nzinga, a force of nature in her own right, conjuring the impossible: spaces, community, funding, spaces, players and advocates. An accomplished actress and playwright, a fantastic published poet, holder of M.A., M.F.A. and Ph.D. degrees and multiple awards, Nzinga has been rustling up the arts in Oakland/Bay Area circles for over forty years, wielding her trademark combination of outrage, charm, fervor, dignity, humor and profuse love.
Cat Brooks, this production’s co-director, told the audience in after-show remarks: “Ayo[dele] picks people off the street and gives them the gift of theatre.” Nzinga added, referring to August Wilson, “Just because our affair didn’t start until he was dead doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
At its heart, this production of the play was about storytelling. Again and again, the characters paired up—one telling, one listening, then perhaps switching; one remembering, the other witnessing, before changing partners. After a while, this combining and re-combining took on a rhythm, becoming a kind of quadrille of memory; a cotillion of trauma, loss, history.
Wilson’s gorgeous flights of language can turn complicated: Are freed slaves free? In the countless clips of scenes I have seen from other productions, none of the actors have had the raw directness, the scrappy, hungering grace that the Lower Bottom Playaz actors had, never striking an inauthentic note.
This production brought to the fore the text’s element of theatricality—its play-within-a-play-ness. At key moments, the characters “staged” an event. When they knew the law-and-order Constable was coming, they “staged” a tableau of nonchalance. When the Constable shot and killed Solly, the others spontaneously staged a ceremony for Solly’s body lying on the kitchen table, circling him, each one stopping to say goodbye.
Central to Citizen Barlow’s journey to spiritual selfhood is the “staging” of his trip to the City of Bones at the center of the world. With Aunt Ester at the figurative helm, and a little paper boat as a talisman to carry Citizen to another level of consciousness, Citizen’s companions create for him a trance experience summoned through chanting, calling, singing, rhythm-making and the hypnotic suggestion that he has arrived where he can be cleansed from the inside. That is, they show Citizen how to travel with his mind. They give the gift of theatre of the mind.
Directorially, the build reached by these methods were all the more stunning for not having any “tech” component at all: no supplemental background music, imposed video or CGI, computerized lighting effects. The pacing was so expert that the stillnesses were earned, the silences full of thinking and feeling.
Occasionally, the dialects were dense enough that I missed things. But I was carried over sticky patches by the compelling cadences, the clarity of the situations, by the unaffected recitations of poetry, the singing and by the moral authority of all the performances.
The Lower Bottom Playaz’ 2019 Gem of the Ocean was a gem of the theatre season.
NOTE: An earlier version of this review is at www.scene4.com.
*Lissa Tyler Renaud (MA Directing; PhD Theatre History/Criticism). Founder-Director, InterArts Training, based in Oakland. Has taught, lectured and published widely on acting, directing, voice, body alignment, dramatic theory and the early European avant-garde, around the U.S.; at major theatre institutions of Asia; in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden. English-language founding editor, English-French Critical Stages (2008–14); its Language Editor, English (2014–18); currently, contributor and board member. English-language Editor, Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China; senior writer, Scene4; Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series: Kandinsky’s theatre life.