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August Wilson Full Circle

by August Wilson

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3150

SHOWING : August 29, 2008 - September 28, 2008



The Alliance theatre opens its 40th Season with the "Bookends" of August Wilson's 10-play cycle set in each decade of the 20th Century. In "Gem of the Ocean," it's 1904 and a haunted man seeks absoluton from a woman reputed to be over 300 years old. In "Radio Golf," it's 1997, and a man running for mayor must face the ghosts of his own past. The plays are performed in repertory by the same cast.

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by Dedalus
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
To start its fortieth season, the Alliance Theatre is presenting August Wilson’s plays, “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” in rotating repertory. Because the experience of seeing both plays is greater than seeing each of them, it’s only appropriate that they are written about together. Seeing either play would be to witness Atlanta Theatre at its finest. Seeing both (and experiencing the various generational threads that connect them) is a profoundly moving experience that will appeal to your heart, to your head, to your sense of history, to your sense of family, and to our indefinable center that drives us to the theatre for our most significant experiences. These plays are the perfect amalgam of writing, of performance, of craftsmanship, of concept, of theme, and of experience. To say that I loved them won’t be the first understatement I make before reaching the bottom of this column.

As I wrote in a background piece a couple weeks ago, August Wilson’s legacy is ten plays that are set in each decade of the twentieth century. “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” are the last two plays he wrote, yet they provide the framing story for the century. “Gem” is set in 1904, when memories of slavery are still vivid, when echoes of African mysticism infuse new-found Christianity with a vibrancy not found in its “white” counterparts, when African-Americans in Pittsburgh are getting a taste of leadership and of corruption. “Radio Golf” is set in 1997, when Pittsburgh may elect its first black mayor, when the legacy of the “Hill” district that drifts through all ten plays will be forever changed. These two plays, more than any other in the cycle, set up and fine-tune Mr. Wilson’s motifs of history, of family, of generational drift, and of (perhaps) losing touch with that “core” piece of humanity we all share, that sense of worth that can either take you to that mystical “city of bones,” or bull-doze you forever beneath its rubble. What is your life worth? How will your death define your life?

“Gem of the Ocean” (directed by Kenny Leon) takes us to the kitchen and parlor of the house Aunt Ester (Michele Shay) shares with her protégé, Black Mary (Tonia M. Jackson), and friend, Eli (Donald Griffin). It is 1904, and the ubiquitous Pittsburgh Steel Mills overshadow everything, symbolizing opportunity and oppression, work and slavery, past and future. A man from the south, Citizen Barlow (E. Roger Mitchell), has come for salvation. A pointless act of protest has led to a man’s death, and it haunts Mr. Barlow. Aunt Ester is a half-mystical half-mythical woman who is talked about in many of the cycle’s plays, but who takes the stage only here. Reputed to be over 300 years old, she is the connection to the past, the tribal elder who can look into your soul, find your worth, and help you find a path. Elderly here, we don’t hear about her death until “King Hedley II,” set 80 years later. Also on hand are Rutherford Selig (Larry Larson), a white peddler who nevertheless has strong roots in the District and a strong connection to its residents. We also meet Solly Two-Kings (Afemo Omilami), an elderly ex-slave with a history as a “conductor” on the Underground Railway, still struggling to find a path to freedom and to Aunt Ester’s heart. And, most cruelly, there is Caesar Wilks (“The Wire’s” Chad L. Coleman). Black Mary’s half-brother, the voice of law and order, a man all-too-willing to take of the role of master and oppressor. What happens as these characters act and interact can only be described as a poetic ballet of words and deeds, of connections formed and broken, of trips through the imagination, of guilt and redemption, of the law and those who hide behind it. Everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, everyone has their life inexorably changed (or ended), everyone realizes they have a place in the shadow of the steel mills, in the light of the history that has brought them all to this place and time. What is your life worth? How will your death define your life?

Ninety-four years later, it is “Radio Golf” (directed by Kent Gash). Real-estate developer Harmon Wilks (Mr. Coleman) is running for mayor and is about to begin construction on a multi-million dollar project that will revitalize the blighted Hill District. His partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Mr. Mitchell), was his college roommate, and is a rising star in the Pittsburgh Business Community (it is his love of golf and takeover of a local radio station that give the play its title). Harmon is married to Mame (Ms. Jackson), on the short list to work with the Governor of Pennsylvania. Rounding out the cast is Sterling Johnson (Mr. Griffin), a rascal carpenter with ties to the Wilks family and the Hill District, and Old Joe Barlow (Mr. Omilami), a mysterious old man who may be insane, who may be a con artist, but who definitely has a claim on Aunt Ester’s old house, the demolition of which is the last step before construction on the Development project begins. The family names of these characters are significant (and I’ll leave it to you to discover the connections with the “Gem of the Ocean” characters). The motifs of history and community become explicitly stated here – Harmon Wilks has deep connections to the Hill District, Roosevelt Hicks does not. Guess which one is most eager to dismiss Old Joe’s claims! Harmon wants his headquarters rooted in the neighborhood (and the set is a grimy old building, still overshadowed by the now-abandoned Steel Mill background of “Gem of the Ocean”). His wife is anxious to move to a “nicer location.” When he delves into the substance of Old Joe’s claim to the condemned house, Harmon realizes a family connection deeper than he thought, and faces his own complicity in “gaming the system” to get what he wants, regardless of what it costs to anyone else. His life is overshadowed by the death of his twin brother in Viet Nam, and the “path” his father set him on at a young age. The irony is, at the same time he is finding the historical and generation roots of his life and his worth, he is rebelling against the chains that his own family has placed on him, both the family of his youth, and the “family” he has created with his wife and partner. It doesn’t take long before is must face those self-same questions we’ve seen before. What is your life worth? How will your death define your life.

One of the joys in seeing these two plays in repertory is discovering the threads that connect them, threads missed by simple readings of the scripts. As only one example, in “Gem of the Ocean, “ Caesar Wilks, about to arrest Aunt Ester on a trumped up charge, says “You living in the past. The laws done changed, and I’m custodian of the law. Now you know, you got to have rule of law otherwise there’d be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” He is, in effect, using the law as an instrument to keep these people, his own family and people, under control and under the same shadow of oppression they experienced as slaves. He is “the villain,” using the law as a weapon. In “Radio Golf,” we hear Harmon Wilks (played by the same actor), saying “I’m going down to the courthouse and file an injunction to stop the demolition. You got to have rule of law. Otherwise it would be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” He is now the hero, using almost the exact same words, but now in the service of his family, his people. I’m certain the echo is deliberate, and I believe there is a deeper level than simple “villain/hero” dichotomy at work here. I believe Mr. Wilson is showing us how the rule of law is indeed a double-edged sword, that it can be an instrument to “do the right thing,” but can also be used “to do the wrong thing. It’s almost as if the two characters, separated by two generations and 94 years, have made the law a particular reflection of their sense of self-worth. Caesar has decided that he is a little man who can only hide behind the law to elevate himself. Harmon is willing to sacrifice all in its service, because he knows it is now on his side.

The productions themselves add business and motifs to strengthen these connections, bits that are unscripted, but still resonant. Watch for a significant prop from “Gem” to find its way into Old Joe’s pocket. Watch for a casual comment by Old Joe that clarifies the truth beneath Aunt Ester’s mystique and longevity. And, in particular, just wait for the totally unexpected coup de théâtre that ends “Radio Golf,” a totally unscripted moment that explicitly ties the two plays together and reflects all the decades that separate them, perhaps even keeping the Alliance’s productions of the other eight plays as part of that ongoing story. Directors Kenny Leon and Kent Gash are to be commended for making these plays appear co-directed, rather than individually directed – it is a collaboration in which no seams are visible.

The performances and craftsmanship on display are all top-notch. I especially appreciated Mr. Coleman’s performances. His Caesar was everything I expected (villainwise), yet he still managed to generate some sympathy, and even some applause after a monologue on family. In contrast, he made his Harmon a much kinder and idealistic man, more open to the surprises this journey will bring him. If Mr. Griffin’s Eli was a tad bland and “background” (I was never 100% sure of his place in Aunt Ester’s household), his Sterling Johnson was a masterpiece of characterization, a funny and aggravating man totally at peace with himself and his shortcomings. Ms. Jackson’s Black Mary was a force of nature, a totally unique individual with a harsh past, but a strong outlook that screams “survivor.” Her final break from Caesar is compelling and moving, but it is her initial reaction to Citizen Barlow that sold the character (and performance) for me. And, her Mame Wilkes, in spite of being self-serving and insensitive to her husband’s connection to this community, is nevertheless warm and likeable. Mr. Mitchell has a long face that makes Citizen Barlow’s torment and struggle compelling. And he has a total transformation into the obsequious and dislikeable Roosevelt. Michele Shay’s Aunt Ester is a perfectly realized icon, larger-than-life, but still human (and exacting). But it is Afemo Omilami’s Solly and Old Joe that are the heart and soul of both these plays. If his characters have no direct familial connection, the Mr. Omilami makes their connection resonant, the figures of the past that drive the present, and who, one way or another, must pay for the sins of those who forget the past (or never knew it at all). This is a true ensemble cast performing a Herculean task, and succeeding on every single note.

Commendations also need to go to the design crew for giving us two sets that are so completely different, yet so completely “of a piece.” Aunt Ester’s house is warm, gas-lit, wooden, and functional (complete with kitchen water pump). Harmon Wilks’ office is a run-to-seed metal-and-plastic space, with filthy linoleum tiles, hastily-painted columns and cold ceiling lighting fixtures. (By the way, kudos to the design and construction team for the nice forced perspective on this set.) The steel-and-shadow city that backs both pieces acts as a unifying element and a thematic reminder that emotionally suggests without overstating. And thanks need to go to the Alliance’s Technical Director, who on the long opening day, allowed the audience into the balcony between shows to watch the fast and talented crew “changeover” the sets, and provided some nice commentary while they worked.

So, the question remains. What is your life worth? How will your death define your life? What’s very clear is that every person has their own answer (or not), and the answers are surprisingly different for different characters here. Some find redemption by facing these questions head-on. Some live in the shadows rather than face them. These two plays make them explicit, and make the quest for their answers a theatrical event that will be long-remembered, long-cherished, and perhaps even passed on to the next generation of actors and directors and craftsman and (maybe) writers.

-- Brad Rudy (



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