Masterful drama explores slavery’s effects on families in Gem of the Ocean at Cygnet Theatre Company


Through his series of 10 plays, each set in a different decade, playwright August Wilson took a long look at life for the African American. “The Pittsburgh Cycle” earned two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. The Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is staging the first of the series, “Gem of the Ocean.”

It takes place in 1904, shadowing the memory of slavery. Drifter Citizen Barlow arrives at the home of 87-year-old Aunt Esther in search of asylum and spiritual redemption. Esther is a powerful character who believes in holding on to where you came from, your roots and your ancestors. She guides Citizen on a soaring, lyrical journey of spiritual awakening to the City of Bones.

Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray, who co-directs the production with Victor Mack, said he finds staging Wilson’s plays appealing due to the playwright’s ability to capture the mood, thoughts and attitudes of different decades.

“They all contain characters who are fully realized,” Murray said. “They don’t tend to have heroes and villains; they tend to be about people who have different philosophies and points of view that come into conflict. It’s interesting how different situations work out.”

“As I’m watching this cast, I’m realizing there is something big and universal about the play,” Murray said. “Until you’re able to look inward and find your personal strength and live a life of integrity, you’re not able to move forward with life. We die as we live, I think is a political message August wrote as he was dying with cancer. I read he denied himself pain medications so he could keep his mind lucid and finish the play.”

Much has been written about Wilson’s brilliant use of language in his plays. Murray said it’s almost like music, it just flows.

“Our cast includes a mix of eight actors; some have performed in Wilson’s plays, some who are locally based, and some who bring new ideas to the play. I think it’s a good mix for some discoveries.

“This play is about a vast community of people who still have a direct connection to slavery. There’s a lot of discussion about what is freedom, and the of promise freedom not living up to itself because roadblocks have been set up to keep people from being free, politically economically and socially.

We have to look at what that does to the soul of people with that legacy. I believe Wilson is trying to put tangible faces to people in this story, and explore what the insult of human dignity does to people. When people fall, they fall hard, and usually it comes from not knowing who they are or what they are supposed to be.”

If you go

What: “Gem of the Ocean”

When: Matinees, evenings to Feb. 24

Where: Cygnet Theatre Company, Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego

Tickets: $29-$44

Box Office: (619) 337-1525