Something bright and beautiful is going on at Round House Theatre, but it’s not your typical Christmas extravaganza.
“There is so much ‘holiday fare’ in D.C. that if one really wanted to see a serious play at this time of year, you’d be hard-pressed to find one,” said Timothy Douglas. “My understanding is that (Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette) was quite deliberate about bucking that.”
But buck it he did, hiring Douglas to direct “Gem of the Ocean,” the August Wilson play that kicks off the Pulitzer prize winning playwright’s Century Cycle, which includes his best-known works like “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
“I didn’t say it because I wanted to direct the play, but I thought, ‘Are you sure, because you’re going to lose your shirt,’” laughed Douglas. “So I never said it — and the box office is doing amazing. This show is selling like hotcakes!
“I never would have guessed that.”
No singing, no dancing, no nutcrackers. “Gem of the Ocean” tells the story of former slaves and descendants of slaves coming to terms with the harsh realities of freedom. Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play resonates with its modern audience as it stares down the issues that confront us to this day.
“I think that, first and foremost, it has to do with Wilson’s talent and genius,” said Douglas, who grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island, and has a master of fine arts degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama. “Any great play will always speak to the times that it’s being performed in.”
This is the director’s third “Gem of the Ocean.” “I haven’t done it in 12 years,” he said. “It’s remarkable: I hear things differently now, because I was listening to the play in a pre-Obama presidency and it said a lot about America. And now, given the impact of the current administration, the play still says the same things about anyone who feels disenfranchised or is suffering at the hands of ‘fluidity in truth.’ The play is really resonating on that level right now. That transcends race and culture.”
But race and culture are at the heart of “Gem of the Ocean,” which tells the story of Citizen Barlow, a young man who comes north from Alabama just ahead of the Great Migration, wherein six million African Americans — in search of prosperity — relocated from the rural South to Northern cities.
Barlow ends up at 1839 Wylie Avenue, the home of Aunt Ester Tyler, the 285-year-old former slave whose ability to cleanse souls launches him on a spiritual journey to manhood. There is humor, terror, magical realism, a little romance and an epic journey to the City of Bones. Seen through the eyes of Pittsburgh native August Wilson, the colorful characters at 1839 bring American history to life.
“He wrote about his world,” said Douglas. “He had a keen ear for the world he grew up in, he loved his people, he honored his people, and part of his genius was tapping into the DNA of the survival of the descendants of slaves.
“Even I cannot fully imagine the atrocity of slavery,” he added. “Yet, within that, we are human — and humans somehow prevail, with spirit, humor and music woven into the fabric of who we are.”
That spirit is captured by the poetic nature of Wilson’s writing and by the performances of a cast that features Stori Ayers, Stephanie Berry, Jefferson A. Russell, Alfred H. Wilson, Michael Glenn and the scene-stealing KenYatta Rogers.
Justin Weaks, the 28-year-old actor who plays Citizen Barlow, was a junior in high school when Wilson passed away. “I had heard of August Wilson, but never read any of his work,” he said. “Then my theater teacher gave me a copy of ‘Fences’ and I fell in love with it. I was reading and I heard my uncle and my aunt, my grandfather and my grandmother. It’s their language, but it’s heightened — it’s beautiful poetry. I was thrilled to discover him.”
Weaks is from Concord, North Carolina — “just outside of Charlotte” — and was a gymnast before becoming an actor and earning a bachelor of arts in theater at Greensboro College. “My mother would tell you she’s known this was the path I’d be taking since I was 4,” he said. The path led him to D.C., just as Citizen’s led him to Pittsburgh.
“It’s almost like he’s landed in Oz,” the actor laughed, adding that he draws on his Southern upbringing to play the character whose coming of age underpins the “Gem of the Ocean” narrative. Even though the play is set in 1904, Weaks said, “When you get to the heart of it, not a lot has changed. That’s one of the exciting and poignant things about doing this: to put the life of a young black man onstage and contextualize the present. It’s wild how much of this play resonates. It’s jarring — in a beautiful way.”
For Weaks, “Gem of the Ocean” is all about connection — how the characters are connected to each other, to the past and to the universe. The cast connects with the audience to the point where it almost feels interactive, a phenomenon Weaks likens to the call-and-response tradition.
“Of all of Wilson’s plays it’s the most magical,” he said. “Everyone has their own spiritual experience while watching and interacting with the play.”
Which is really what the holiday season is all about.
August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” runs through Dec. 30 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $30, with discounts available for age 30 and younger, 65-plus and active duty military personnel and veterans. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.RoundHouseTheatre.org.