Chicago Theatre Review
A True ‘Gem’ at Court Theatre
Gem of the Ocean – Court Theatre
May the City of Bones bless Court Theatre.
From ‘Seven Guitars,’ to the world-premiere ‘Native Son,’ to its new staging of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean,’ the many talents behind Court continue to bring the agonies and the ecstasies of the African American experience to the Chicago stage in vivid fashion, and I walk away thankful each time to have experienced another one of the company’s productions.
The first part in August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ‘Gem’ takes place in the city’s Hill District in 1904, a time when slavery, the Civil War, sharecropping, and the Black Codes were all still present issues. The setting is a single house, and the characters are pure Wilson: Aunt Ester, the matriarch of the household who is deeply spiritual and claims to be 285 years old; Black Mary, the saucy cook/housekeeper; Citizen Barlow, the son of a former slave who migrated north for economic opportunity, but is in need of spiritual salvation; and Solly Two Kings, a former slave and agent in the underground railroad.
‘Gem’ occasionally falls victim to Wilson’s propensity for speechifying – moments where the beauty of the writing overwhelms the sparkling interaction that colors most of his dialogue – but otherwise, the writing is as sharp, funny, and genuine as one can expect from America’s Shakespeare. Excellent writing, though, is nothing without great actors, and the incredible cast Court has assembled, which includes regulars Alfred H. Wilson, Jacqueline Williams, A.C. Smith, Tyla Abercrumbie, and Jerod Haynes bring Wilson’s writing to life; indeed, it’s as though we’re peeping in on relationships that have been gestating for years. It’s particularly gratifying watching Haynes develop as an actor. From TimeLine’s ‘Raisin in the Sun’ to three productions now at Court, Haynes continues to grow more nuanced and natural with each role; we’re truly seeing a star take shape.
And finally, the production standards are as high as ever for Court. Ron OJ Parson’s direction is taut and focused, and Jack Magaw’s scenic design, Linda Roethke’s costume design and Heather Gilbert’s lighting design transport you back to early 20th century America.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented Sept. 10 – Oct. 11 by Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Tickets are available by calling 773-753-4472 or by visiting http://www.courttheatre.org/.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.