Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theater Company Revisits August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”

By August 20, 2019 No Comments

Amanda Reed
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer

Actress Chrystal Bates says playing the same character twice is like painting two pictures.

“It’s like you did a watercolor before and now [you’re] doing it in oil,” she says. “We’re still working with paint, but it’s almost like a different medium.”

In 2012, Bates played Aunt Ester in Pittsburgh Playwright Theater Company’s production of “Gem of the Ocean;” she will reprise that role with the production’s revival of “Gem” from Aug. 24-Sept. 22, which features multiple cast members from the 2012 production. 

The chronological beginning of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, “Gem of the Ocean” (2003) is set in Aunt Ester’s home for the troubled and lost. “Gem of the Ocean” is a story of redemption and spiritual awakening, taking audience members from the Steel City to the City of Bones. 

The 2012 production was directed by Mark Clayton Southers and performed at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater downtown. This time, it’s directed by Andrea Frye and will be performed outdoors at 1839 Wylie Ave. in the Hill District, the play’s exact setting. 

Wali Jamal will once again play Caesar Wilkes. For him, different choices are refreshing, especially when playing a classic character.  

“Different is always better because you don’t want it to be the same,” he said. “You don’t want to give the same performance, even though there’s seven years difference.”

Kevin Brown played Eli in the 2012 production and returns to play Solly Two Kings. For him, seven years makes a huge difference.  

“I’m 65. The character is 67 and I’ve got new life experiences,” he says. “I added different things to my acting tool box that I can reach for and use to help bring the character to life.”

According to Bates, playing Aunt Ester is like “the Lady Macbeth for a black actress.” Being chosen to play her again is an honor, and she will use her late mother as inspiration for her performance. 

“I feel that I’m in a time in my life where my mother was, in fact, my Aunt Ester and I was her protege and the torch has now passed to me,” she says.

“Gem of the Ocean” features an all-female production crew, which excites Bates. 

“To put it in a season like this it is remarkable,” she says. 

Mark Clayton Southers, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company’s founder and artistic producing director, says his decision to have an all-female production crew was an easy one.

“Mr. Wilson’s plays traditionally have ensembles that are dominated by men and their stories. For this production, which features Aunt Ester as the lead, I chose to select an all-women behind-the-scenes production staff to help bring this story to life,” he said in a press release. 

Brown says it’s invigorating getting to tell the same story in two different ways.  

“It’s amazing because you do the same show and have two different visions.” he says. “It’s a great experience to see through the eyes of both directors and try to come up with the same story.”

Gem of the Ocean. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24 to Sept. 22. $18.39-$37.50. 1839 Wylie Ave., Hill District.

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