Thanks to the movie adaptation of his play “Fences,” the late August Wilson is one step closer to becoming a household name. But those who saw the film starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis will be in for a surprise if they expect something similar from “Gem of the Ocean,” opening Thursday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.
After all, you won’t find a 287-year-old former slave matriarch and an oceanic journey to a mythical City of Bones in any other Wilson works. In fact, “Gem” is about as far from the realism of “Fences” as you can get.
“You’re going off into a completely different realm that you don’t see this in stories, hardly,” said actor Lewis J. Morrow. “You see it in sci-fi and stuff like that, but this isn’t magical, this isn’t otherworldly — this is spiritual, a crossing over into this spiritual realm.
“It’s really easy to forget that what’s happening is real.”
The mystical plot revolves around Citizen Barlow (Morrow), a black man who committed a crime that another was punished for. Looking for redemption and a new start, he finds Aunt Ester, a cleanser of souls. She sends him on a journey to the City of Bones aboard the “Gem of the Ocean,” a legendary slave ship, to understand the story of his ancestors and face the truth about the man he wronged and the crime he committed.
Part of the show’s spirituality comes from the understanding that Aunt Ester can summon mythical powers — although the characters make clear that this is not magic. The play also combines biblical references and the history of slavery, including the brutality of the Middle Passage journeys aboard slave ships. MET director Karen Paisley calls the play “the most emotionally demanding of us as a culture.”
Paisley has cast veteran Kansas City actors to lead the show — Sherri Roulette-Mosley as Aunt Ester and Granvile O’Neal as Solly Two Kings, a former guide on the Underground Railroad — but she’s also included younger performers, like Morrow, who have never acted in a Wilson play.
For MET newbie Shawna Peña-Downing, Wilson was always a literary or educational experience, and she calls his 10-installment play cycle “the pinnacle of the black experience.”
“It’s a privilege to experience work that’s not getting heard and not getting done — anywhere, really,” said Peña-Downing, who plays Ester’s apprentice, Black Mary. “Every day, I learn something more, and that’s the impact of his work.”
“Gem of the Ocean,” set in 1904, is the first chapter in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, exploring the black experience in the 20th century, decade by decade. However, “Gem of the Ocean” was actually the second-to-last installment he wrote, in 2003. It is not performed as often as classics like “Jitney” (now on Broadway), “Fences” (which the Kansas City Repertory Theatre will perform next season) and “The Piano Lesson.” All but one of the plays take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. (Washington will produce all 10 of the plays for HBO.)
Paisley said Wilson’s estate asked her theater to present the play as part of the “American” cycle, not “The Pittsburgh Cycle” as it had previously been known. For Paisley, a white director of an all-black cast, that meant creating a show that transcended race.
“There’s that human component, and there’s that resonance that touches you at the core that is uniquely of the human family,” she said. “When you see these plays, it doesn’t really matter what color you are; it matters that you are of our species.”
That being said, the director and actors had a comfortable back-and-forth to work through their different backgrounds.
“She’s able to find the human aspect, first, of the experience, because though there are cultural differences, there’s always that common ground as a human connection, first,” Roulette-Mosley said. “She has this very insightful way of having references as a human and then, if she’s not totally confident as how it applies to us culturally, she’ll just ask.”
Both director and cast hope the play provides a healing experience for audience members, no matter what race or culture.
“In our life, we have these journeys, and the impact of those journeys will either hurt us or heal us,” Peña-Downing said. “Citizen needs us to help him heal — and that’s OK. It’s OK to call on people — and it’s also OK to call on yourself for your own healing.”
“Plays don’t show up with the answers; they show up with the questions,” Paisley added. “The answers are within us.”
The Kansas City Actors Theatre and Heart of America Shakespeare Festival will partner to present a staged reading of “The Beard of Avon” at 2 p.m. Sunday at the H&R Block City Stage in Union Station. The satire, in its Kansas City debut, will explore the legacy of the Bard’s plays — and who actually wrote them. Call 816-361-5228.