Wednesday, 12 Dec 2018

August Wilson's ocean jewel comes to an end on Round House

"The Jewel of the Ocean" by August Wilson is an epic, epic play from the very first seconds when a character named Citizen storms a 1904 kitchen in Pittsburgh, desperate to see a 28-year-old oracular woman. In the chronology of Wilson's cycle of plays sweeping the twentieth century of black American life, "Gem" stands at the beginning while telling a harsh narrative of the past.

That's a lot to do and this new production of Round House Theater is often – although not always always – ready to hike. The main pleasure lies in the crackling chemistry between the frantic young citizen (played by Justin Weaks) and the former sage, Aunt Ester (Stephanie Berry). As a citizen, a serious young man from Alabama and already off in the north, Weaks is shaken. you can hear him in his flickering voice, see him in his rigid body. Berry's Ester, on the other hand, is as cool as possible. Ester knows the whole story and Berry plays the role naturally, letting the mystical authority flourish from his character's knowledge rather than any ornate supernatural style.

The director Timothy Douglas, is this daily and earthy tenor that characterizes the approach of the distribution: the actors play this people in flesh and blood without striving to make sing a masterpiece. But do not be fooled. Wilson, writing towards the end of his life, created an almost lyrical drama mingled with long speeches – confessions, testimonies and even sermons, truly about history, about freedom and justice, as well as about the terribly elusive quality of the inner peace. Anxious citizen who is sorely lacking. Wilson's plot is based on a simple bucket of nails stolen from a mill. Yet it culminates in the brutal ocean crossings of the slave trade while Ester conjures up something she calls the "city of bones". By telling all this, Douglas actors are familiar they are emotionally wrapped all night long. The rhythm of their speech never fades and the tension does not drop.

The spell cracks from time to time though, while the cast of seven plays on the wooden raft of a rustic kitchen / diner Tony Cisek's designer in a house that the occupants call "sanctuary". It is moored by small bridges leading to the left and right, and supported by a large staircase and a threatening wall. "Gem" seasoned viewers – and there will be many, because Wilson remains one of the pillars of the American theater – will wait for the secrets of this project to be revealed, and the show presents indeed an incandescent surprise in the second act . That the design is more expressive than the bodies of the actors at this moment is one of the problems that keep this "jewel" in the category of very good, but not without flaws.

Stori Ayers (Black Mary) and Kenyatta Rogers (Caesar Wilks) in "The Jewel of the Ocean". (Kaley Etzkorn)

The same can be said for speeches that may become fragile at the top of the volume, although most of Wilson's characters embody a strong confidence. The complexity of the characters appears: Alfred Wilson is friendly but as dangerous as Solly Two Kings, a collector of dog trash (the playwright Wilson had his reasons) who shares with Eli a great past of underground railroad (Jefferson A. Russell, as firm as sentinel).

Wilson's poetic approach to the characters comes to life particularly with Caesar, the ironic name of the act played with a roar of boxer and Kenyatta Rogers posture. Caesar is the villain of melodrama, but when he comes in, Wilson lets him talk and talk speak, with the pugnacious Rogers who gives the lines like blows until you understand the entangled path of this man and his tortured notion of justice. Punching is rare, so when Stori Ayers, as a serious housekeeper, Black Mary, finds a laugh with Berry's Ester, the relief is comical.

For decades, Wilson has been so steadfast on the scenes that it's easy to forget how many people have not been introduced to this body of incredible depth. The "gemstone" exhibited at Round House – the last bid before the closure of Bethesda's house in January for Renovations and return next fall, performing in the meantime two performances on the Lansburgh stage of the Shakespeare Theater Company – thus takes on the magnitude of the ambition and highlights of its population. And in the archetypal mother-child bond that stems from the fable between the calm Ester of Berry and the traveler in the making of Weaks, the show finds its soul.

Jewel of the oceanby August Wilson. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Enlightenment, Andrew Cissna; costumes, Kara Harmon; sound design, Justin Ellington; Music Director, Darius Smith. With Michael Glenn. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Until December 23rd at Round House Theater, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. $ 30 to $ 82. 240-644-1100 or


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