Engaging performances by two talented actors provide a solid foundation for the Actors Group’s production of August Wilson’s slice-of-African-American-life drama "Gem of the Ocean."
The play, set in Pittsburgh in 1904, is the first chronologically in Wilson’s 10-play epic, "The Pittsburgh Cycle," an examination of the experiences of African-Americans throughout the 20th century. Some of Wilson’s characters here were born into slavery; others are only one generation removed from it.
‘GEM OF THE OCEAN’
» Where: The Actors Group Theatre, 650 Iwilei Road
» When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 13
» Cost: $20, Fridays to Sundays (discounts available); $10, Thursdays
» Info: 722-6941, www.taghawaii.net
William Ammons (Solly Two Kings), one of the dominant players in TAG’s 2010 production of "The Piano Lesson," returns in a similar role playing a footloose, good-timin’ ex-slave who derives at least part of his living by collecting and selling "dog (expletive)." Ammons develops the character along many of the same lines that made his portrayal of sharp-witted piano player Wining Boy an audience favorite a year ago, but this time the story arc gives him even more to work with.
Curtis Duncan (Caesar Wilks) returns to TAG as the designated villain — an ex-con who found redemption in prison and turned his life around so successfully that he is now a feared member of the establishment. Wilks has overcome the twin obstacles of race and class to become a property owner with the legal authority to carry a gun and use it.
Duncan jump-starts the action the first time he appears onstage and makes Wilks a dominant presence in each subsequent appearance. Although Wilks is clearly the villain, much of what he says makes sense — in 2011 as well as 1904 — even when the actor neatly illuminates the chinks in the character’s uncompromising self-righteousness.
Director Russell Motter deploys a squad of convincing performances around Duncan and Ammons. There’s Wendy Pearson as Black Mary, Wilks’ estranged sister, who chooses to work as a domestic rather than be his partner in business; veteran actor Gregory Harris as Eli, former Union Army scout and a member of the Underground Railroad before that; Neal Milner as Rutherford Selig, a white peddler whose wares include rocks for a wall Eli is building; Deborah Pearson as Aunt Ester Tyler, a 285-year-old "washer of souls" — or so she claims — whose home is a self-defined sanctuary; and Myles McGee as Citizen Barlow, a young man recently come up from rural Alabama who arrives at Aunt Ester’s home in desperate need of her services.
Although the action is driven by labor unrest at a nearby mill, the energy level doesn’t drop during a scene where Barlow crudely invites Black Mary to "visit" him. She turns the sexual invitation into a learning opportunity for Barlow with insights that remain relevant today.
McGee’s acting skills also fuel the scene where Aunt Ester becomes Barlow’s "guide" on a trip to "wash his soul" in the City of Bones. Playwright Wilson apparently did not intend the audience to interpret it as a physical experience, but McGee’s performance leaves no doubt that Barlow is experiencing everything Aunt Ester is describing.