Wilson’s fame centers around his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays about the neighborhood where he grew up, each set in a different decade of the 1900s. Gem covers the first decade, set in The Hill District in 1904, although it was the next to last of the series written. The play revolves around Aunt Ester, the 285-year old matriarch who was brought to America on the slave ship in the title and who serves as the community’s advisor and moral guide.
The production by The Human Race, Dayton’s own professional theatre company, is directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Artistic Director of the theatre at the August Wilson center in Pittsburgh. Southers grew up in and still lives in The Hill, and recognizes many of the characters from real life. “I think there are Aunt Esters in every family,” says Southers. “They pass down recipes and oral history. African-American history relies heavily on the oral tradition.”
Southers say that while the setting is in an African-American community at a time when slavery was a very real memory, Gem, like all Wilson works, crosses cultural lines, “White audience members get to be a fly on the wall, hearing stories they typically don’t hear.”
The Human Race will present a special opportunity to learn more about Wilson and his work at a symposium at 1pm Saturday, March 31. The panel of the symposium, moderated by David Greer, includes Southers; Sala Udin, a Wilson childhood friend and actor in his early plays; Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh theatre critic and professor and author of a book on Wilson; and Charles Holmond, who teaches a course on Wilson at Earlham College.
Southers has gathered a cast of local favorites and talented guest artists for Gem of the Ocean. Dwandra Nickole, who had a long New York career before joining the faculty at Ball State University, plays Aunt Ester. Jonathan Berry (Citizen Barlow) and Kevin Brown (Eli) have extensive experience in Pittsburgh productions of Wilson’s works.
Two Human Race Resident Artists are featured – Alan Bomar Jones as Solly Two Kings and Scott Stoney as a Rutherford Selig. Other locals in the cast are Dayton native Bryant Bentley (Caesar Wilks) and Marva M.B. Williams (Black Mary), who was in The Human Race in-school tour show, Change, last fall.
The set for Gem of the Ocean is designed by Dick Block, costumes by Colleen Alexis Metzger, lighting by Resident Artist John Rensel, and sound by Rich Dionne. Kay Carver is the Production Stage Manager.
Gem of the Ocean has a preview night March 29, with official opening March 30 and performances through April 15.
Gem of the Ocean and the August Wilson Symposium will both be in the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Tickets are available via www.humanracetheatre.org , by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630, or at the Schuster Center box office.