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

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07 Dec 2004

From Top: August Wilson; Carole Shorenstein Hays; Raynor Scheine; Phylicia Rashad; Kenny Leon; Ruben Santiago-Hudson; John Earl Jelks; Anthony Chisholm; Keith David; Courtney B. Vance; Angela Basset; Brian Stokes Mitchell
From Top: August Wilson; Carole Shorenstein Hays; Raynor Scheine; Phylicia Rashad; Kenny Leon; Ruben Santiago-Hudson; John Earl Jelks; Anthony Chisholm; Keith David; Courtney B. Vance; Angela Basset; Brian Stokes Mitchell
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Granted, an opening night audience is one deep in pockets of vested interest—and, thus, not the most reliable of theatrical gauges—but every manjack of us jumped to our feet like a shot the very second Gem of the Ocean faded to a final black Dec. 6 at the Walter Kerr.

And the applause continued well beyond the company's obligatory two bows, forcing the cast to regroup backstage and rush back for one last, and eminently well-deserved, call.

The last time an opening-night audience brought a cast back on a Broadway stage for an enforced bow was 1997's Titanic, another ship-named show which had a comparably choppy crossing.

Perhaps the audience's enthusiasm was tempered by a certain sympathy for the underdog and the fact that several astonishing performances almost sank without a trace just short of their Broadway port when a major investor jumped ship and practically scuttled the production. Happily for all concerned (and The Theatre), a Frisco angel named Carole Shorenstein Hays stepped in and helped the Jujamcyn producers tow the boat ashore.

"It's everything that Broadway should be about," clucked a contented Hays at the after-party at Barbetta. "I felt whole. I felt that hole inside of me was filled, that the audience was all there, united, supporting the work of August Wilson. We're all united in doing good works and working with the right people. That's what really moves the art form."

As if this didn't give Tony nominators enough to ponder, Hays is bankrolling other stage projects that promise to give her plenty of award-competition this season including an all-star Julius Caesar led by Denzel Washington's Brutus. Before then—"probably in March," she estimated—she confirmed she will be moving John Patrick Shanley's acclaimed new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Doubt, to a Broadway house. "We'll have a theatre pretty soon." (Translation: the theatre is currently occupied with a play.)

Otherwise, aside from this one-woman art front, the fate of the nonmusical on Broadway is pretty dicey—as the rocky voyage of Gem of the Ocean demonstrated. It's the ninth in Wilson's ten-play cycle on African American life in every decade of the 20th century. All won Best Play Tony nominations, save for Jitney (which played Off-Broadway and, thus, wasn't eligible, but did win The New York Drama Critics' nod for Best Play of the Year), and one of them—the Hays-backed Fences in 1987—waltzed off with the Tony Award.

In short, Gem shouldn't have had the agro that it had getting to market. But Wilson rolled with the punches. "If you stumble," he philosophized, "that makes you go forward faster."

Opus No. 9 is actually the first installment of the series, chronologically, and gets its title from the vessel that brought to America the play's mystical centerpiece—287-year-old Aunt Ester, a powerful spiritual guide who leads former slaves to true freedom. The time is 1904. The place, as in all the previous plays (except for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), is Pittsburgh, specifically the Hill District where Wilson grew up, here ruled by a penny pinching landlord, Caesar. Rendering unto Caesar what's Caesar's is open to violent debate.

About the only person unruffled about the Broadway embrace given the show was Raynor Scheine, who plays the one white character in the piece, a benign bounty hunter ("people finder") and traveling salesman named Rutherford Selig. "Tonight was my 157th performance of it," Scheine said. "We got standing ovations every single night in Los Angeles and every single night in Boston. We knew how the audience responds to it and how powerful it is." The third curtain call, he did allow, was a surprise "and a pleasure."

Scheine and Selig had met before—in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. "August wrote me back into this play. I'm playing a younger version of the character I played 15 years ago. They got to dye my beard every six weeks or so because my beard is as white as Santa's."

Which is nothing to what it takes Phylicia Rashad to age to a respectable 287. "It takes an hour," she said when she arrived at the party looking more like the Clair Huxtable we know and love from TV. It's an image she has yet to show on Broadway. Earlier this year she was the decidedly unglamorous grandmom in A Raisin in the Sun, and was so convincing at that she won the Best Actress Tony (the first African-American to score in this category, incredibly). Aunt Ester ups the ante and the age and should put her back in the Tony race.


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