THE FIRST PLAY IN AUGUST WILSON’S “CENTURY CYCLE SET” TO OPEN AT THE CYGNET THEATRE
by lisa lipsey -
The Cygnet Theatre welcomes the San Diego Premiere of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean; the first play, chronologically, in the playwrights August Wilson’s epic Century Cycle. The son of a white father and a black mother, August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945.
In ten separate plays, each one covering a different decade of the 20th century, Wilson explored the lives, dreams, triumphs and tragedies of African-American history and culture. Wilson’s series brought him recognition as one of America’s most celebrated dramatists and earned him numerous awards, among them the Tony Award (1985), the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1985) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1990).
Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray notes, “This will be Cygnet’s third production from Wilson’s Century Cycle, in 2008, Cygnet presented Fences. Our efforts were rewarded when the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle honored the show as an “Outstanding Production.” Then in 2010, we revisited August Wilson’s work with our production of The Piano Lesson.”
The choice to direct Gem of the Ocean was easy for Murray, “When I first read the play, I was blown away by power of the language, it felt like real people. While it is very specifically about the Black experience, the African American experience in the 20th century, it is also about everybody; in the broader scope. There is something in every Wilson play that all of us can relate to. The shows have amazing power to educate, entertain, make us laugh, cry, there is something hypnotic about them.”
“My hope is that our style is, you can’t define our style, that each play is a really great story told in its own unique way. Gem of the Ocean is flashy, historical and soulful. It’s a good anchor for our tenth season.”
Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904, when slavery was still a living memory and shares the story of a drifter by the name of Citizen Barlow. When Barlow arrives at the home of Aunt Ester, he is in search of spiritual redemption. At 287 years old (yes, 287), Aunt Ester guides Barlow on a soaring, lyrical journey of self-discovery to the mythical City of Bones, on which, Ester tells Barlow, “all this, and everything else you see is built.” Once there, Barlow finds absolution and makes a startling discovery that moves him to act beyond the boundaries of his conscience.
Murray explains, “287 year-old Aunt Ester is the spiritual heart of the community. In Gem of the Ocean we learn that Aunt Ester came to America as a little girl in the 1600s traveling from Africa. She has lived through all of the history and is a connection to the community’s past and its roots. She goes through the arc of all ten plays. When times get really difficult for the Black community in America during Reagan years in the ‘80s, she starts decaying. Dying, as the community moves further from who they are, when they lose their connection to their roots.”
Murray is co-directing with actor and director Victor Mack who has performed in several Wilson plays. Earlier this year, Mack won a Drammy Award for his direction of The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarrell Alvin McCraney.
“Victor and I went to school together in North Carolina, he was a couple of classes ahead of me and I had always admired his acting—a great guy and a real artist with a lot of integrity. I’ve watched his career, always proud of him; when I reached out to him, he was in the middle of doing Seven Guitars and had done Gem of the Ocean. It was perfect timing because he was already immersed in the work of August Wilson,” said Murray.
Gem of the Ocean features returning artists Laurence Brown (Fences, The Piano Lesson) as Citizen Barlow, Antonio T.J. Johnson (Fences – S.D. Critics Circle Award, The Matchmaker, The Piano Lesson) as Solly Two Kings, and Grandison Phelps III (Fences, The Piano Lesson) as Eli, along with Mujahid Abdul-Rashid as Caesar Wilkes, Melva Graham as Black Mary, and Georgina Okon as Aunt Ester.
Cygnet’s production of Gem of the Ocean is supported in part by a generous grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Murray says, “I am really excited that our work is being recognized. We’re not just producing a play; we are creating a living history. The NEA Art Works grant will provide for outreach events including post show forums, traveling presentations and a production of the one-man show Walking in the Shadows of August Wilson by Antonio T.J. Johnson.
We are also working in partnership with the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park to bring in the works of African American painters from the time period of Gem of the Ocean.”
Murray shared that after this production he jumps right into The Assassins. “It’s a funny spooky musical, great for Valentine’s Day! We really have a wacky bunch of plays. It’s like artistic whiplash at our theatre—entertaining, thought provoking or edgy.
My hope is that our style is, you can’t define our style, that each play is a really great story told in its own unique way. Gem of the Ocean is flashy, historical and soulful. It’s a good anchor for our tenth season. Later this season we have some unique and edgy stuff. You never quite know what to expect.”
For tickets and more information call 619.337.1525 or go to cygnettheatre.com.