August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’ examines freedom, self and the African American experience at SCR

From left, cast members Arnell Powell, Cleavant Derricks, Matt Ordu–a and Shinelle Azoroh rehearse a scene from "Gem of the Ocean," which will be at South Coast Repertory from Saturday through Nov. 11.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Every century has a beginning.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson knew that.

In his unprecedented American Century Cycle — also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle — he wrote 10 plays, each capturing the essence of the African American experience during a specific decade of the 20th century.

“Gem of the Ocean,” set in Pittsburgh in 1904, is the production that tells the story of that first generation of African Americans to emerge after the end of the Civil War and the death knell of slavery.

Chronologically, it’s the first in the American Century Cycle, although it was written and produced second-to-last in the series in 2003.

South Coast Repertory will present “Gem of the Ocean” starting with previews Saturday and running through Nov. 11. This will be the fourth work penned by Wilson to be produced by SCR.

Cast members, from left to right, Cleavant Derricks, Shinelle Azoroh, Arnell Powell, Matt Ordu–a and Preston Bulter III during rehearsal for August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer )

Kent Gash, director of “Gem,” is keenly conversant with Wilson’s work.

“Gem” will be his fifth production by the late playwright, though Gash is making his SCR debut with this play.

“I’m delighted to be here,” he said during a recent interview. “(SCR Artistic Director) Marc Masterson is a longtime friend and colleague and somebody I cherish. He called and asked me to do this, and I could not say no.”

Gash is an accomplished New York-based director with a long list of productions and achievements.

He’s also an associate professor at New York University and founding director of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ New Studio on Broadway.

Not only has he directed five plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, but he also had the pleasure of knowing and working with Wilson, a Pittsburgh native who died in 2005.

“He was totally open and really forthcoming, which was great,” said Gash, who is a drama school graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, also in Pittsburgh. “He was very funny. But the thing I remember most about him — he listened to people intently. Seeing him around just real people responsible for the production, and how he would observe the real people who were in his life. He was more interested and more invested in other human beings, and where their experience might be, than he was interested in perpetrating himself.”

In “Gem of the Ocean,” waves of former slaves and descendants venture north and find themselves at Aunt Ester’s abode in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson was born in 1945.

Ester, played by Tony and Obie Award-winning actress L. Scott Caldwell, claims to be 285 years old and is known far and wide for cleansing souls and providing solace and healing.

“It’s one of his plays that isn’t done quite as often as something like ‘Fences,’ ” said Gash, 57. “It’s a complex, wonderful and ambitious play. There’s so much for every actor to sink their teeth into.”

Gash noted that the house where Ester resides figures in many of the other plays in Wilson’s cycle, and “there are threads and characters that are talked about in other plays.”

So, in a way, “Gem” serves as a launch pad into Wilson’s other works.

“The questions the play asks of every character are, ‘What is freedom?’ To actualize your authentic self — what does it take to achieve that, and what does it take to sustain it, not in words but in action? This is at the heart of every play August wrote. It’s a central question for every African American. It’s at the center of American existence.”

Even though “Gem of the Ocean” is set in 1904, some of the themes and issues still resonate in 2017, Gash said.

“We are living in such a complex time, in such a difficult time,” the multiple award-winning director said. “African Americans often find themselves under siege, and living with targets on their backs. It could not be more urgent, more vital or more important, what August was saying when he wrote the play, and what is important to understand. If we don’t understand what and where we have come from, how do we know who we are and where we’re going?”

Cast members, from left to right, Cleavant Derricks, Matt Ordu–a, Arnell Powell and Shinelle Azoroh rehearse "Gem of the Ocean" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer )

“Gem of the Ocean” also stars Shinelle Azoroh as Black Mary, Preston Butler III as Citizen Barlow, Cleavant Derricks as Solly Two Kings, SCR veteran Hal Landon Jr. as Rutherford Selig, Matt Orduña as Eli and Arnell Powell as Caesar.

Special events during the run of this production include post-show discussions with cast members on Oct. 25 and 31; and an “Inside the Season” session with SCR’s literary staff, “Gem” cast members and production staff on Oct. 28.

If You Go

What: “Gem of the Ocean”

When: Oct. 14-Nov. 11; previews run Oct. 14-19; regular performances run Oct. 21-Nov.11

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $23

Information: (714) 708-5555 or visit

Richard Chang is a contributor to Times Community News.