Sail Away: Wilson's Gem of the Ocean Ends Brief Broadway Run Feb. 6

By Robert Simonson
February 6, 2005

August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, which fought hard for its Broadway berth, will relinquish it on Feb. 6, when the production closes at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

It will have played 15 previews and 72 regular performances.

Previews for the Carole Shorenstein Hays production began Nov. 23, 2004. Opening was Dec. 6. Hays, whose credits include Take Me Out and Caroline, or Change, is the angel producer who saved the once imperiled Broadway run of Gem. The new resident at the Kerr is Hays' next effort: John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which has been looking for a Broadway home since winning great reviews last fall at Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway.

Wilson's recent career on Broadway has mirrored the increasing difficulties plays have had in finding long-term success over the past decade. His breakthrough, Pulitzer-Prize winning 1987 hit Fences ran for 11 previews and 525 performances. His next Pulitzer winner, 1990's The Piano Lesson stayed on Broadway for 8 previews and 328 performances. Two Trains Running followed (7 previews, 160 performances), then Seven Guitars (13 previews, 188 performances) and King Hedley II (24 previews, 72 performances). Gem of the Ocean constitutes the shortest Broadway stay of any Wilson premiere.

The Gem staging stars last season's Tony Award-winner, Phylicia Rashad (A Raisin in the Sun), as Aunt Ester, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Caesar and LisaGay Hamilton as Black Mary. The cast also features John Earl Jelks as Citizen Barlow and Raynor Scheine as Rutherford Selig. Kenny Leon directs.

Gem of the Ocean is the ninth play in Wilson's 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience through each decade of the 1900s. The story, set in 1904, "begins on the eve of the 285th birthday of Aunt Ester (a recurring character in Wilsonís play cycle). Citizen Barlow, a man who is in spiritual turmoil, arrives at Aunt Ester's house in Pittsburgh's Hill District and is soon set off on a spiritual journey to find the mythic City of Bones, leading him to startling discoveries and setting him on a course of duty and redemption."

Gem of the Ocean, which struggled last fall to replace a shortfall in its $2 million production budget, cancelled its Nov. 4-21 performances.

Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theatres, told the New York Times that the deal to save the show happened because his company and Hays received concessions from vendors and creative personnel.

The trouble began late in October, when a major investor pulled out of the venture, taking an unspecified chunk of the $2 million capitalization with them. The unexpected loss of cash sent original lead producer Benjamin Mordecai in search of new investors. Meanwhile, the load-in of the production's set into Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre was delayed, and a new marquee remained unhung.

Gem ended a Boston run on Oct. 30, 2004. It was to have begun previews at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Nov. 4 and open Nov. 11.