Actor Clayton LeBouef is on a journey. At his grandfather's funeral, LeBouef first learned the man's middle name: Cowealtha. No one still living in his family knew what it meant. Research pointed to African origins, but LeBouef is "still on the search."
It's a journey similar to the one in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, now playing at Arena Stage in Washington. Set in 1904, Gem is the first in Wilson's cycle tracing the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. In Gem, African-Americans in the first generations after emancipation seek out those born into slavery for wisdom and, sometimes, for redemption.
LeBouef, a repeat performer at Center Stage, plays Eli. He's best known locally for such Baltimore-based roles as Orlando in The Wire and Capt. Barnfather in Homicide: Life on the Street.
In Gem, he says Eli is the "gatekeeper" for the soul-cleansing Aunt Ester. At age 285, Ester has lived throughout slavery in the United States. Her wisdom inspires former slaves and those born after to come to her for soul washing. "When people come to get their soul washed, they have to come through Eli first," LeBouef said.
Eli is a mysterious character to LeBouef compared with other Wilson characters he's portrayed. Prior roles as Wolf in Two Trains Running and Canewell in Seven Guitars had long monologues that revealed each character's past. Eli, on the other hand, is left open to interpretation.
"I look at Eli as very heroic because he opens up the sanctuary and welcomes in these troubled souls," LeBouef said. He sees Eli as a Gandhi figure, a man who deals with violence in a violent world by transforming it into peace.
Communication in Gem is also key. LeBouef points out that Wilson's dialogue carefully avoids calling people "slaves" but, rather, describes them as "enslaved people."
"Using the word 'enslavement' is important," LeBouef said. "We will have a clearer picture that these people were not born slaves." He says that this subtle change in language allows us to get to the real history of enslaved people, their civilizations and their cultures before the Middle Passage.
LeBouef, 52 and a native of Yonkers, N.Y., is likely to stay in the Baltimore-Washington area, where he says great things are happening in film and television.
"If it weren't for Baltimore, I probably wouldn't be living here in the area," he said. "I would have moved on to California or New York, and reluctantly. The work that's coming out of Baltimore, the film, the quality of the film, the work, it's touching people on the streets. I know the entire film industry is watching Baltimore."
This year LeBouef will take on a role in a movie adaptation of Charles W. Chesnutt's short story "The Doll," to be produced by Dante James, who earned an Emmy for his PBS documentary series Slavery and the Making of America. The Doll will also team LeBouef once again with screenwriter Joy Lusco Kecken, who wrote for Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire.
Showtimes at Arena, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington, are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and at noon Feb. 28 and March 14. The play runs through March 18. Tickets are $46-$66. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.