By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth has a strong track record with the plays of August Wilson. Their latest is Wilson's 2004 drama Gem of the Ocean, one of the most difficult and evangelical of the playwright's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, each touching on a different decade in the African-American experience over the 20th century.
Set in 1904 and directed by Akin' Babatunde', this one tells the first chapter of the saga chronologically and sets a tone of mysticism and spiritual transformation through connection with the past. At the center is Aunt Ester Tyler (Cheryl Tyre), a feisty woman of indeterminate age who tells firsthand stories of slave ships of the Middle Passage 250 years earlier. She presides over the household as a sort of living oracle in a crisp white dress and royal blue sash.
A young man named Citizen Barlow (Akron Watson) seeks sanctuary in Aunt Ester's home. He thinks he's responsible for the death of a black millworker and has heard that Ester can "wash his soul." That she does in a mesmerizing scene in the second act. As the parlor wallpaper of designer George Miller's set turns transparent and shimmers like the sea, Ester and her family members Black Mary (Mikala Gibson), Eli (Bill Hass) and Solly Two Kings (Douglas Carter) chant Citizen into a trancelike state in which he "remembers" his enslaved ancestors making the horrible journey from Africa.
Long Way Go Down continues through June 26 at Kitchen Dog Theater. Call 214-953-1055.
Gem of the Ocean continues through June 27 at Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth. Call 817-338-4411.
Though they declaim their lines at top volume—unnecessary in this small theater—the actors connect deeply with the play, which helps make it accessible to the audience. They achieve some breathtaking moments. One is when Black Mary's brother Caesar (played in a cynical strut by Al Garrett) reels off a litany of reasons why black men (he uses the n-word) have to live by the oppressive rules of white society in order to get rich. His is the soul that needs the scrubbing.