Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Theater review: 'Gem of the Ocean' from Theatre UCF

The protesters of the Occupy movement might find it surprising that they have something in common with the characters of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."

For "Gem" is a story of an African-American household in 1904. But the inhabitants share with the modern protesters an unease, an anger that there's an inherent inequity in society's distribution of wealth and power. They ponder issues of equality, classism, capitalism and — most of all — what is the true meaning of freedom.

That notion of freedom is at the center of the lyrical writing and emotional storytelling of "Gem of the Ocean," staged in a stirring Theatre UCF production directed by Julia Listengarten. And in a message that still resonates today, Wilson cleverly points out that slavery is not just being forced to work against a person's will. It's possible to be a slave to many things, whether a rigid interpretation of the law, a guilty conscience or the shadows of the past.

Theatre UCF's production beautifully mixes heightened theatricality with a sense of ordinariness. The high-minded concepts are seamlessly conveyed within everyday conversations.

It's a wonderful introduction to Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," his series of 10 plays, all but one set in a Pittsburgh neighborhood, that traces the African-American experience through the 20th century.

In "Gem of the Ocean," benevolent dictator Aunt Ester presides over a bustling household that includes her protégé and housekeeper, Black Mary; her caretaker, Eli; and a new arrival with a secret who seeks redemption, Citizen Barlow.

Solly Two Kings, a former slave who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, is a frequent visitor, as is Rutherford Selig, a white peddler who sells pots and pans.

Against this domestic scene, trouble's brewing downtown at the mill — a tin factory that unjustly traps freed black men into servitude and debt.

The top-notch cast, led by Be Boyd as cackling, shrewd Aunt Ester, is captivatingly tight ensemble.

Bursts of African music fuel the story's momentum (music director is Pascha Weaver). Lighting by Ryan Bosshardt and a cleverly versatile set by Vandy Wood transform a drab reality into a fantastical slave ship.

There's a lot to ponder, including the difference between God's justice and man's. (It's no accident that the rigid representative of human law is named Caesar.) But the beauty of this production is you won't feel like you're hearing a sermon; you'll just be caught up in the lives of these fascinating people.

mpalm@tribune.com or 407-420-5038

'Gem of the Ocean'

What: A play by August Wilson

Length: 2:50, including intermission

Where: Theatre UCF, UCF Black Box Theatre, off University Boulevard and Alafaya Trail at the University of Central Florida

When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday (Nov. 18-19) and Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 1-3; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, and Sunday, Dec. 4

Tickets: $17; $15 seniors; $10 students

Call: 407-823-1500

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Comments
Loading