BACK STAGE WEST
August 07, 2003
at the Mark Taper Forum
All of August Wilson's previous work seems to lead up to his new play, his ninth in a series about African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. And that's this play's biggest problem: The sense of significance that freights this narrative about former slaves trying to claim and understand their freedom can be a little stifling, lending the play an allegorical gravity that feels over-determined rather than discovered and distilled from the lives and voices of his characters, as is the case with his best work.
There is unmistakable grandeur in Wilson's conception of a City of Bones--a mythical heavenly city built of the bones of those who died during the Middle Passage, stranded between Africa and America--but it's a grandeur we merely observe admiringly rather than feel cathartically. Director Marion McClinton's stately, reverent production only seals the play's sense of its own importance. David Gallo's expansive, high-ceilinged set, for instance, is clearly more suited to the characters' climactic virtual journey on a slave ship than to the naturalistic playing-out of day to day life in a boarding house in Pittsburgh, 1904.
Thank goodness, then, for Phylicia Rashad, who makes Wilson's Aunt Ester--a voluble font of wisdom and African-American memory going back 285 years--an engagingly scatterbrained guru. Slumped into a hip-rolling old-lady walk and exuding an air of casual authority, Rashad weaves Ester's axioms into her distracted chatter rather than landing hard on each. And apart from one tear-milking reverie for a dead son, Rashad plays Ester's true sacred heart close to the vest, giving her all the more power when she fixes her gaze and doesn't let go. It's a convincing and recognizable portrait of a batty-like-a-fox old broad, flavored but not drowned by Rashad's congenital sweetness.
Going down rougher, like a shot of hip-flask hooch, is Anthony Chisholm as Solly, a former slave and tracker. Solly may symbolize the race's endurance against all odds, physical and philosophical, but Chisholm doesn't play a symbol but a raw, ravaged bantam--the kind of scrapper who's made sustenance of licking his own wounds. Other characters don't get as many dimensions, either from Wilson or from the actors: As Black Mary, Ester's reluctant young protege, Yvette Ganier gets some fiery speeches, delivered with a budding fury, but Mary's toughening-up arc is a fait accompli. As Eli, the good-hearted keeper of the house, Al White gives each line an unvaryingly stentorian, tell-it delivery, but it's all the character demands. And as Caesar, the high-yellow villain who's both slumlord and sheriff, Peter Francis James strives mightily to shade him with pathos, even vulnerability, but he's best with Caesar's peremptory, cock-of-the-walk affrontiveness.
Least interesting of all, unfortunately, is the portentously named Citizen--the young man who comes to Ester for a soul-washing and gets instead a purgative vision-quest tour of persecution and transcendence, played with little more than Dan Moses Schreier's creaking-hull sounds, Donald Holder's eerie lighting, and the incantations of the assembled cast. As Citizen, John Earl Jelks carries off this devilishly difficult all-in-his-head mime scene as well as any actor could. But, though we can see the soul-bursting wonder in his eyes at the first glimpse of the City of Bones, we never quite feel it, because Citizen is no more than a cipher, created to be filled with meaning by ancestral memory.
When, at play's end, Citizen matter-of-factly assumes Solly's mantle, just as we know Black Mary will assume Ester's, it seems right and inevitable--but only because, in the rather precious, fable-like world of Gem, we know that the torch of a passing generation will be picked up by the next, and the next. A heartening affirmation, indeed, but one wishes Wilson had taken a cue from Rashad's approach with Ester: Make the messenger live, breathe, laugh, and curse, and we'll get the message.
"Gem of the Ocean," presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. July 31-Sept. 7. $31-45. (323) 628-2772.