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ArtsCenter Stage’s Opening-Night Performance of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” Shows Promise


To coin a phrase, The 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle is an august opus of love, insight, broad vision, and the ear and heart of an artist still not as fully recognized nor acclaimed as he should be, a giant of a man and skyscraper of a playwright. I say that even though the former Virginia Theater in the Broadway District of New York now bears his name, the only theater in New York named for a black playwright. Still, we hear too little about August Wilson and see way too few of his works.

It has been my good fortune to see seven of his plays, six of them at the Huntington Theatre in Boston in their “August Wilson’s American Century” series; and I have never failed to come away with deeper insights than I would have imagined possible into the travails and successes of my African-American compatriots. August Wilson’s ear for the language, the subtleties of meanings woven idiomatically into a vaguely American version of English, the nuances of racial struggle against unseeable, almost unfeelable hostile actions and utterances constantly remind us that the dissension between races is deeper and more complex that we ever admit to in daily conversation. Everything that happens in the latter nine plays is explicated in this first one, and it is constantly referenced through the next 90 years of fictional-but-true experiences. It must be seen.

The damnable “opening-night syndrome” affected Friday night’s performance the ArtsCenter Stage’s production of Gem of the Ocean. Some slow deliveries, some line hesitations, some not-so-well-read lines, despite the fact that this is a nicely seasoned cast. And despite the mildly uncomfortable sluggishness, not a high spot was missed, not a nuance overlooked. Several performances were so powerful that they brought the entire cast up to speed for their durations. So, it is with a full throat that I say this show will live up to its potential as it continues to play.

To begin with, it is set spectacularly in Aunt Ester’s living/dining room. Neat, well kept, nice rugs on the wooden floor, seven spacious windows, a lace table cover with a bowl of fruit always available, matching antique love seat and chair, magazine with ashtrays and Aunt Ester’s corn-cob pipe, an old wood stove, and hand-pump and a cabinet with provisions. James Carnahan did a fine job of making this home warm and welcoming, and giving it the spirit of mysticism that the script demands.

Lighting designer Elizabeth Droessler keeps the room in the level and mode of the action. Sound engineers Zachary Corsa and Denny Wilkerson Corsa provide us with excellent period music. Director John Rogers Harris has extracted fine acting skills from all the actors; and let me say again, the mild sluggishness and hesitations I feel sure will spring into fiery dialogue very shortly.

Thomasi McDonald fills Solly Two Kings with the incredible humor that can only come from great pain and ordeal, spilling out his heart through the sieve of a steel shield as he recounts his days in slavery and the remorse of having to leave family and friends behind to secure his own freedom. This is a growing performance that adds color, shading and expression with each successive speech until he nearly outdoes himself relating his feelings upon reaching Canada.

Phillip Bernard Smith takes on the almost thankless role of Caesar Wilks, policeman, land owner, capitalist, and strong-arm man for the factory owners, who seemingly has turned on his own race-mates in order to drag them into individual responsibility. His long ironic speech at the end is a magnificent mass of contradictions that may serve to show us more about the man than the character would ever want — exactly what we expect from a fine actor.

Jade Arnold plays Citizen Barlow, a recent arrival in Pittsburgh, a man with a terrible secret and a need to clean his heart of it. He mostly underplays his character, perhaps sustaining that secret but pulls out all the stops as he passes through the City of Bones, where he encounters the Truth of Life in a deeply mystical scene. John Murphy does a fine job as the white peddler who is befriended by Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester, who claims to be 285 years old, a former slave and a “soul-healer” is brought to us Luanda LaJoyce Holley, Malcolm Green plays Eli, and Sherida McMullan brings us Black Mary.

I am thoroughly convinced this show will achieve its potential and soar, and we certainly saw all the elements that will bring that to fruition on Friday night. I strongly urge all to see this play.

SECOND OPINION: May 11th CVNC review by Kate Dobbs Ariail:; and May 7th Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:

ArtsCenter Stage will present GEM OF THE OCEAN at 8 p.m. May 15-17 and 3 p.m. May 18 in the Earl and Rhoda Wynn Theater, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina 27510.

TICKETS: $14-$16 ($12-$14 students and seniors 62+ and $10-$12 ArtsCenter Friends).

BOX OFFICE: 919-929-2787, ext. 201, or

SHOW: and




VENUE:,, and



Gem of the Ocean (2003 play): (Wikipedia).

The Pittsburgh Cycle (10-play cycle set in Pittsburgh, PA): (Wikipedia).

August Wilson (Pittsburgh, PA-born playwright, 1945-2005): ( and (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: (Actors Theatre of Louisville).

John Rogers Harris (director): (Facebook page).


Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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