The Lower Bottom Playaz’ “Gem of the Ocean”:
The Ground on Which I Stand
This is the first of a multi-part article about theater in general, and the state of North American African theater in particular. The series is also about, The Lower Bottom Playaz, a ten-year-old Community Based theater troupe in West Oakland CA., their reason for existing, and the importance of the work they attempt. Perhaps, the real first part of this article is Tyler Perry’s, Madea’s Big Happy Family, A Review, it is very much one conversation to me. In future articles I will make a solid connection and deliver the promised article, Precious and the state of Black Arts, for now lets focus on Wilson. Wilson makes me happy. He amongst the luminaries who have crafted not just the grounds for my artistic practice with The Lower Bottom Playaz, but in literal truth have mapped, “the ground on which I stand” as a singular creative North American African in a so called post race era.
I came to directing Gem circuitously and with tempered enthusiasm. I started lobbing to replace Shakespeare with Wilson in the slot allotted by my theater for “Shakespeare in the Yard” in 2009. Although I applied for the rights early in 2010, they were not granted until late August leaving me with a month and days to mount one of the largest productions I have ever attempted. Like most theatrical productions, the drama of pre-production always threatens to eclipse the actual production. This is very true now.
It was a mixed blessing to have MET produce “Gem” in late August at Next Stage; more about the MET production later. Another huge factor I was forced to face is that of the harsh reality of the limits imposed by the anorexic budgets on which I create. We have been referred to as the Mc Giver troupe for the way we pimp nothing into big somethings. Given a choice between talent and money, I would opt for talent. However, truth is, you also need money to go with talent if you are going to produce quality theater. We always strive to do much better than anticipated with our invisible dollars; but can we pull off Wilson? All of these less than optimal factors cautioned me not to attempt the work now; but I am not a student of the optimal. I often undertake the impossible. Therefore, you might understand how improbable it was that I would walk away from the chance to do Wilson. I could not. Our production will be the final judge of the results. This thread will be explored in articles that follow.
So, we are in it, swimming, and vowing not to drown in some of the best work we have ever attempted. Please note; we only do big work. This work is special because after some rough travel, doing it seems like we have finally arrived home. We have found our sweet spot. We are in absolute awe of and in deep love with Wilson.
Gem is the first chronologically in the Pittsburgh Cycle but Wilson penned it in 2003 followed by Radio Golf, which is the last in the cycle chronologically and also the last play before his death in October of 2005. From Gem of the Ocean to Radio Golf, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle speaks the 20th Century North American African experience.
Wilson is notable for several reasons. First, he is brilliant. For those that find him long winded I counter that their complaint sounds like accusing Romare Bearden of using too much color. A writer’s medium is words and Wilson is a master. His ear for dialect and musical cadence in language is impeccable. His use of words to paint pictures displays a rarely matched talent. It could be argued, that it is the short attention span of listeners, not the long windedness of the writer that should be called to question.
I have read reviews of the work, done around the country, that stress the necessity of stellar actors who know Wilson’s work to properly bring life to this huge work. It is indeed a huge work. It runs over three hours uncut. It is an complex and epic piece running on multiple tracks at the same time. It is a ride you could miss if you will not cash in the ticket offered in the magnificent text proffered by Wilson. It’s like Aunt Ester says, “If you believe it can take you.” I submit to do the work properly you must have an ensemble and director who believe in and on the work and work towards an unerring overstanding of the author’s intentions.
Wilson is a giant easily compared to O’Neil, Shakespeare, and Faulkner by critics who esteem themselves in their knowledge of American Theater. His Pittsburgh Cycle is among the best theater created in America bar none. “This cycle,” notes the theater critic Christopher Rawson, “is unprecedented in American theater for its concept, size, and cohesion.” Gem is its foundation piece. It is the work you must understand to properly contextualize Wilson’s companion work. It is intended to be comprehended as a comprehensive context for the “ground on which we stand“.
Gem of the Ocean has received criticism from writers I generally like, example given; Dwight Hobbes whom I respect but disagree with in regards to Mr. Wilson’s oft described as ponderous “Gem”. “Gem” is as brilliant as its author. It is Wilson at his sharpest, awash in finely drawn metaphor, musically poetic, and moving beyond measure if you listen. Much of Dwight’s commentary, (link provided below), centered around having to listen to long passages of dialogue which he described in most part as well acted. It would seem his central dislike of the play is not wanting to hear Wilson. I find that a shame, and Hobbes great lost. Further, I think it explains Hobbe’s contention that the copious text and the lack a solid plot wanders aimlessly leading to nowhere. I could not disagree more. Do bear in mind, in contrast to Hobbes; I am speaking not of a particular production, but the play itself.
On the surface, it is a simple parable. “You die by how you live.” However, as parables are never truly simple, neither is the quoted epithet. To whom is Wilson speaking and what does it mean? I think he is telling us all to count the cost and to remember we all “got to stand in the light”.
If he feels the necessity to instruct us to remember he must feel we do not currently overstand. In the simple, but not so simple over story, a man is falsely accused of a crime. His death sparks a riot at the mill the only employer in town albeit an oppressive benefactor reminiscent of sharecropping and company store arrangements in the South. A young man running from the abuse of Blacks by whites in a post slavery Alabama comes Pittsburgh for an opportunity in the “big world” his mother tells him is out there beyond the harsh South. He ends up coming to Aunt Ester the matriarch of 1839 Wiley Avenue to have his soul washed of the blood he feels he has on his hands. He meets Aunt Ester’s circle of lively associates and is helped by Ester to “get right with himself” as things at the mill reach a dramatic peak that reveal to the audience and the young traveler what it means to “live right” in the most impossible of circumstance.
It is the under story you have to listen to carefully. It is the reason there are so many words. Wilson is playing lyrical leap frog here, its Griot time, its syntactical sorcery with lines that speak double meaning and circle round to create foreshadowing replete with eerie fortune telling aspects that allow/ invite/ command us to connect it to the present moment.
The story geographically set in Pittsburgh is meant to give breath to the whole Black experience from “both sides of the water” including the “City of Bones” that lies between to the gentrifying of historically black neighborhoods including those that represented refuge places, “sanctuaries.”
In the volume of word Wilson has given us a tale of land, fire, stars and water; but you got to want it, “everything ain’t what it seems.” Gem is an anointing but you gotta want the blessing.
The blessing is in the message. The message is remember. Remember aloud in context, get up and get something, but remember it all cost and you got to stand in the light. You got to be right with yourself and if you live right, you die right. You have a duty to life so you must live. You must discover what that means in the light of the truth. The battlefield is bloody but you can’t be scared, you got to figure out how to live, you don’t want it to be your corpse on the battlefield, but you got to live and you got to live right, “you got to do both”.
In the end of the play the mill has been burned down to the ground, leaving the folks with no place to work. Are they better or worse off or worse off as the Black Boss Man predicts they will be if the mill were to ever close?
Aunt Ester says, “I knew a man that went to fix the wheel, it was turning backwards, time he was finished the wheel didn’t turn at all, you got to be careful, everything ain’t what it seem.”
Please come see the Lower Bottom Playaz production of Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson one of the greatest playwrights that ever lived (link for tickets provided below). It opens on October 8 at The Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater in Oakland CA.
End Part I