PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Gem of the Ocean: A Rough Crossing to a Safe Harbor

By Harry Haun
07 Dec 2004

Rashad's Svengali is Kenny Leon, who directed her here and in Raisin as well as in Medea, Everybody's Ruby and Blue. "It's called trust," said Leon when what the secret word was for their mutual success. "It's tremendous to get a chance to work with her."

And that goes for Wilson, too, he said. "We don't have very many new American plays on Broadway. Gem of the Ocean is a great American play by a great writer. The poetry is there, the mysticism, the historical context, the politics, the love. It has been exciting for both of us to work on this. It's been the most fun I've had working on a play in a while."

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, manfully embracing the dastardly landlord villainy, comes on with the same hurricane of charisma that won him a Tony for Wilson's Seven Guitars. "I come to blow the doors down," he said. "It feels great. Anytime you get a chance to put August Wilson's words in your mouth, it's a great feeling as an actor because his poetry, his language, his rhythms are so beautiful. When you get that opportunity, you take it."

Of late, Santiago-Hudson has been making his own poetry/language/rhythms, expanding his autobiographical one-man show, Lackawanna Blues, into a full-blown screenplay with 31 characters, all directed by The Public's exiting George C. Wolfe for HBO airing in February. "George told me I have arrived as a screenwriter. I'm going to trust him and continue to write." He may have written S. Epatha Merkerson, herself a Wilson veteran (The Piano Lesson), an Emmy ticket via the role of the grandmother who raised him.

John Earl Jelks, who rates "introducing" billing here as a young firebrand in the making, admitted he felt extra heat about his debut. "Being the new kid on the block, I really felt I had to score," he confessed. "I felt like an astronaut who got blasted to the moon—or, better yet, I felt like I actually went to other planets and other places undiscovered."

In the older firebrand slot of Solly Two Kings, Anthony Chisholm performed with the precision of someone who'd been in a Wilson ensemble before—as indeed he has. "I've done five of his nine plays, three of them in New York," he beamed. "Every night, with this, it's different. It's bizarre music—music of the soul, the exchange of energies between us. I believe in having fun in your work, to give you a cushion. August gives me that."

Wilson could stand a cushion himself after this chaotic climb to Broadway. Finally freed of the rewriting, he is now turning to the arduous task of bringing his cycle to a close. The concluding chapter is called Radio Golf and reportedly takes place in Pittsburgh of 1999.

"It actually has a connection to Gem of the Ocean," said Wilson. "You're dealing with the grandson of the Caesar character, and the sons of Citizen Barlow (Jelks) and Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton). They want to tear down Aunt Ester's house for redevelopment."

Benjamin Mordecai, Wilson's longtime producer, hopes for a reading in January.

Wilson tends to provide his actors with a lot to play so it wasn't surprising to find among the first-nighters some veterans from previous Wilson out pourings: Keith David (Seven Guitars), Courtney B. Vance (Fences) and Mrs. Vance, Angela Bassett (Joe Turner's Come and Gone), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jitney) and Brian Stokes Mitchell (King Hedley II).

Stokes has a three-week gig coming up at Feinstein's at the Regency (Feb. 1 19) and South Pacific with Reba McEntire at Carnegie Hall in June, but otherwise is soft-pedaling his career (he supposedly turned down Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) so he can devote more time to being a father. His son was one yesterday, he grinned.

Not that it was a race, but Chisholm had him beat. At the opening was his grandson, four and a half months. Though not too critically bent yet, he seemed to like Granddad's work.