Review: GEM OF THE OCEAN at Portland Center Stage

The first play in August Wilson's Century Cycle GEM OF THE OCEAN runs through April 3.

By: Mar. 23, 2022
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Review: GEM OF THE OCEAN at Portland Center Stage

What is freedom? How do we balance morality and the law? These are two of the fundamental questions at the center of August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN, now running at Portland Center Stage, directed by Chip Miller. The answers? Well, that depends on where you're standing.

GEM OF THE OCEAN is one of the last plays Wilson wrote, but it's the first chronologically in his Century Cycle (also called The Pittsburgh Cycle). The cycle consists of 10 plays, set in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh, each of which captures the African American experience in a particular decade of the 20th century.

GEM OF THE OCEAN is set in the 1900s, as both the generation old enough to have been born into slavery and the younger generation try to work out their relationship to the current version of America. In particular, what does freedom really mean? And how does a community reckon with the law when not long ago that same law said that they were property?

The play introduces the character of Aunt Ester, who is the cycle's matriarch, the keeper of memories and traditions for the African American community. Ester was born in Africa in 1619, traveled by slave ship to North America, and, as the play opens, is just about to turn 285 years old. Citizen Barlow, a young man seeking spiritual cleansing, comes to her for help and she leads him on a journey to the past so that he can define his place in the future.

You don't need me to tell you that GEM OF THE OCEAN is a masterpiece. Wilson is one of the best American Playwrights of all time, and the Century Cycle is one of the greatest achievements in American theatre. If you're unfamiliar with these plays, now's the time to fix that.

The reason you should see this production is Treasure Lunan, whose portrayal of Aunt Ester cements them in my mind as the most versatile actor currently in Portland.

Lunan has had roles in several recent productions, but you'd be forgiven for not immediately recognizing them (it took me a while to convince my theatre companion that Lunan was also in this season's BARBECUE at Portland Playhouse - in a role quite literally the polar opposite of Aunt Ester). It isn't right to say that Lunan disappears into roles - disappear is not a word that applies to someone with such a commanding stage presence. It's more accurate to say that they completely and totally mesh with their characters, whether that's larger-than-life Aunt Ester or the painfully shy Nana in SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY, which Lunan portrayed at PCS pre-pandemic.

GEM OF THE OCEAN is a transporting play (in more ways than one) and Lunan gives a transporting performance. I remain entirely convinced that they are 285 years old, 12 feet tall, and in direct communication with spirits of all kinds.

A secondary reason, if you need one, is the design, by scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III, lighting designer Marika Kent, and sound designer Phil Johnson. The set is a house, which frequently transforms into a slave ship using lighting and sound. The effect is visceral.

GEM OF THE OCEAN runs through April 3. More details and tickets here:

Photo credit: Shawnte Sims


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