August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean

Greta Oglesby as Aunt EsterOregon Shakespeare Festival Production, 2007

reviewed by Rachel Murphy

(Editor’s note: We know it ain’t Shakespeare, but we all thought this was too good a production not to comment on. So we’re adding a new category: “It ain’t Shakespeare, but…”)

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2007 Season Gem is the first of a ten-play series known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle” by August Wilson.
With a play for each decade, the cycle tracks the experience of African-Americans in the twentieth century.

Gem is set in 1904 Pittsburgh, where a woman named Aunt Ester (played by Greta Oglesby), a former slave and now reputedly 285 years old, is a healer and a memory-holder for her people. She is cared for by Black Mary (Shona Tucker), a hard-working housekeeper and sister to the uptight Caesar (Derrick Lee Weeden), policeman and landowner with a Javert-like sense of justice and the law, perhaps less for its own sake than as a means of filling some insecurity, some gap within his own soul—not to mention, making good in a white-dominated society. Citizen Barlow (played by Kevin Kenerly) has come from Alabama, and seeks out Aunt Ester, desiring
redemption and hoping to cleanse his soul from the stain of a guilty act; he must make a spiritual journey to reclaim himself and a sense of his history. Simultaneously, Solly Two Kings (G. Valmont Thomas), an old and staunch defender of freedom, having transported slaves in the underground railroad, must now find help in making his way back to Alabama for the deliverance of a sister.

The play, beautifully written, was also feelingly directed by Timothy Bond, whose sense of staging, of lighting, of voice and music, set the tone of the play. Every performance was top-of-the-line, particularly the amazing Greta Oglesby, who carried the piece, and whose beautiful voice leant a haunting atmosphere to a story that reaches the level of the Mythopoeic. Kevin Kenerly gives a rending, compassionate performance, and Derek Lee is a stately and complex Caesar. Though I’m not familiar with any of Wilson’s Cycle, Gem being my first encounter with his work, I have the impression that it sets the tone for all the others, and comes closer than any of the Cycle’s plays to the Allegorical.

This is a haunting and beautiful production, which, to my surprise, was the highlight of my playgoing at OSF this year.

The production is staged in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, and runs through October 2007.

Categories: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Pacific Northwest and Mythical State of Jefferson, and Theatre.


  1. Gorgeous play. Greta Oglesby has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. And this has to be way up there as one of Derek Lee Weeden’s best performances, and he’s always primo.

  2. Gem being my first encounter with his work, I have the impression that it sets the tone for all the others, and comes closer than any of the Cycle’s plays to the Allegorical.

    I first encountered the cycle this past year with the premiere of the last work of the cycle, Radio Golf (it was not as finely tuned as his other works, as it was still being workshopped when Wilson died) but you’re intuition is correct Gem of the Ocean does set the tone for the rest of the cycle. In Radio Golf both to Aunt Ester and her house, though never seen, are pivotal to the plot.

    Wilson’s sense of language and character is exquisite as any American playwright’s.

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