Dazzling ‘Gem of the Ocean’ displays post-Civil War perspectives

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By Bob Evans

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Rich, colorful Southern Black dialogue gives the play the luxurious feel of black velvet, set against the harsh reality of daily struggles of a family as they to stay afloat in a corrupt society pitted against their survival. Wilson takes the audience in immediately with his opening scenes as an uninvited intruder knocks on the door of a family home, while seeking answers and spiritual healing.

August Wilson used the dialogue of the day to create an array of characters steeped in the Black history that was long hidden and swept under the carpet. For Black history month, this was the story to tell, and director Karen Paisley threw caution to the wind to produce this play and provide a look into life of a Black family in Pittsburgh in 1904.

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“Gem of the Ocean” gave me chills from the opening scene. It made me feel awkward and somewhat embarrassed to be looking in this home and hearing words in dialogue that I was taught to avoid using. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a situation that I should not be privy to. The characters were lush, colorful, and powerful as the actors gave their characters more scope as each scene developed.

And what a cast Paisley selected for this production–consummate performers all. The cast was led by Sherri Roulette-Mosley and Granville O’Neal as Aunt Esther and Solly Two Kings. Of equal stature are Lewis J. Morrow and Shawna Pena-Downing as Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, the uninvited guest and Aunt Esther’s helper. Rounding out the cast are Theodore Priest Hughes, George Forbes, and Jerron O’Neal.

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As for the story, a man knocks on the door of a home seeking help from Aunt Esther. He needs help with a burdensome secret he carries. The path to his salvation develops as the focal point of the story. Wilson’s play enlightens of the treatment of Blacks after they won their freedom in the Civil War. The audience learns that freedom comes with a big price tag and heavy burdens to remain afloat. The play also shows how power corrupts good souls turn evil for a jingle in their pockets and a title. In the play, men take action while women provide the anchor that’s needed to steer rough waters.

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I was reminded of the old song “Sixteen Tons” and the phrase, “I own my soul to the company store,” which symbolized the plight of miners who were chiseled out of their wages for over-priced goods they needed to survive. In this case it was the city mill that cheated men out of their wages. And, it was a story of a Black man who used his badge and gun to signify justice and oppress his own people.

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Strong performances always come from Roulette-Mosley and G. O’Neal; that’s to be expected. But stand up and cheer for Lewis J. Morrow and Shawna Pena-Downing who give break-out performances and announce themselves as contenders for upcoming parts. Both gave performances that show they possess character understanding, character development, and can stand toe to toe with the best of K.C. actors.

To divulge more of the plot of “Gem of the Ocean” is a disservice to future audiences. Many know of the playwright’s more current success because “Fences” has been widely produced and was a 2016 motion picture as well. “Gem of the Ocean” deserves to be seen and enjoyed. Opening night brought the first official standing ovation, the first of many. All aspects of the production are first-class. The production team and crews are to be acknowledged for their talents in creating this play.

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The production team are: Karen Paisley, production design/director; Erin Ray, stage manager; James Paisley, light board operator; Shannon Regnier, costume design; Leo Mauler, sound board designer; John Story, sound design; Mark Manley, props master. The crew is: Elizabeth Bowman, James Paisley, Chuck Pulliam, Tom Devine, Kyle Dyck, Tim MacDonald, Greg Smith, Nicholas Relic, Karen Paisley, Scott Wilson.

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“Gem of the Ocean” continues at midtown’s Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Tickets may be purchased through their website. The play runs through March 11.

Tags: Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, “Gem of the Ocean”, Theater, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment, Kansas City Performing Arts, August Wilson

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