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

By Harry Haun
December 7, 2004

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.

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.