Gem of the Ocean: First Day of Rehearsal Meet and Greet
The first day of rehearsal for any play usually begins with a welcome greeting from the artistic director of the company, followed by the director and designers sharing their vision for the play before the cast reads through the play for the first time.
Marin Theatre Company Artistic Director, Jasson Minadakis:
For those of you who are new to the company, I’m going to give you some backstory about our history with August Wilson. When I first got here ten years ago, this theatre had never produced an African-American writer. But when I got here, I found that this community was very hungry for stories about people and places other than their experience. We like to joke around here that our slogan should probably be “Do you red the New York Times? Do you like NPR? Come to Marin Theatre Company.”
The real start of our commitment to August Wilson goes way back to thirteen years ago, when [Gem of the Ocean director] Daniel [Alexander Jones] and I were working on his play Bel Canto. We were talking about how jazz was influential in America in so many ways, and we were curious about how jazz could be influential in the American theatre and particularly in the way actors’ related to each other on stage. Could we use a set text but find a new way to actually allow actors to play that text?
Daniel and I were also talking about how the younger generation of African-American artists did not get a chance to work on August Wilson’s original productions. Those productions were very much grounded in naturalism, where the set looked like something you could live in. For us, growing up in the American theatre and seeing those first productions and reading those texts in school, August started to take on a mythic quality. He was still around and still writing, but he became holy in that way, like Shakespeare. What would it be like if that naturalistic pull went away? What if we were allowed to play with him the way we’re allowed to play with Shakespeare, and gave his language and the music of his language much more scope.
I started talking to a lot of young African-American artists and asked them, what would you do if you had a chance to direct August Wilson? I was talking to Kent Gash and I asked, “What’s the show that you would do, and what would you do with it?” And he said, “I’d do Seven Guitars. I would put it on a tilted stage so that you understood that Pittsburgh, in August’s words, is everything right in the middle of the earth, because you’re halfway between heaven and hell. And you’re always either going in one direction or the other to get closer to one or the other.” That interpretation really intrigued me, which is partly where we got our Seven Guitars production.
We were talking to our audiences about how much August Wilson they’d seen. They’d seen Fences, they’d seen The Piano Lesson, they’d seen the well-known shows, but they hadn’t seen the entire canon and they were hungry to. We made a commitment here to do the canon and to try to do the canon in twenty years. We’re going to try to do one of August’s plays every two years, not in any specific order. The priority is finding young African-American artists who have a vision for each piece.
Kent Gash and I were talking when we were getting ready to do Choir Boy about what the next production was, and he said, “The next one that I want to do for you is Gem of the Ocean. And the reason that I want to do it is because I want Margo Hall to play Aunt Ester. And I want Omoze [Idehenre] to play Black Mary.” We ended up scheduling it for this year. Once I had Kent, I got the two of them hired on. Then because of family reasons, he said, “I’m going to have to pass off the show.”
I have these two amazing women, I’ve got this amazing show, and I have no one to steer the ship. I started going through my list of directors. I was banging my head around with Margot Melcon, our previous Director of New Play Development, and I was getting very frustrated because it wasn’t coming. One day I closed all my windows, turned off all the lights, turned off the computer monitor and just sat there and tried to figure out who was going to lead this, and Daniel popped into my head. I called him and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I want to do it. But I need to ask…do you know why this is really relevant?”
Let’s go back to thirteen years ago when we did Bel Canto. A dear actor friend of mine was in the original production of Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman Theatre, and he is one of the only people to have the original script. As many of you know, August in his first drafts didn’t really cut the work. He would write the work and the production would tour around the United States at different theaters, and they would work on the show and trim it a little bit before it eventually went to New York. [Aaron] gave me that original script and said, “I know you would love to have this bible, which is everything August thinks about this story. It’s never going to be this long again. It’s going to get shorter and shorter and shorter and this material’s going to get lost cause he’s not going to let anybody see it, cause he doesn’t want anybody to potentially think about using it.”
I was beginning to understand what an incredibly spiritual person Daniel is, and here I am with this draft of Gem of the Ocean, which is quite possibly August Wilson’s most spiritual play. It’s the cornerstone for the entire cycle. On opening night [of Bel Canto], I gave Daniel the script.
Let’s flash forward thirteen years. I’m on the phone with him. And he says, “Do you remember what you gave me on opening night of Bel Canto?” And I didn’t. He said, “There’s only one thing that I’ve carried around for thirteen years from apartment to apartment to apartment to apartment,” and it was that original Gem of the Ocean. All of that is just to say that all these bizarre things have happened to bring this show together. Ladies and gentlemen, Daniel Alexander Jones.
Gem of the Ocean director, Daniel Alexander Jones:
It’s an honor to be here with this show and with Jasson. He is one of the leaders in the American theatre who I most respect for his practiced commitment to new work by American writers and his practiced commitment to making the classic work of our canon and of the international theatre canon relevant to our lives today. It is an honor to be here with you and to go on this journey.
When I was a teenager, I was the quintessential freaks and geeks teen. I was about a hundred pounds heavier than I am now. I had the headgear that came out of your mouth and went around your head. I had no friends from eighth grade to eleventh grade. None. I spent a lot of time reading and watching television and listening to music.
This was when cable television was still the badlands. Anything could show up on television. They used to play footage of full jazz concerts into the wee hours of the morning. I got my education in jazz from watching these concerts. The most influential concert I saw was by the late great jazz singer Betty Carter. She was a very interesting figure because she sang with her whole body. When she would sing, her hands would move and her shoulders would move. She’d get in the groove with the musicians.
There was this incredible joy that she had in singing. She had a wig on and she was scratching her head the whole time. She didn’t really take herself so seriously. She enjoyed the performance of it, but her real connection and commitment was to the playing of the music. She sang a version of “My Favorite Things”, a standard we all know from The Sound of Music. She blew it out of the water.
What she did was take this very simple, almost innocuous language about what makes us sad, what makes us happy, and what she did was stretch out the tones. Suddenly the song moved at a pace that felt like we were in a race. Then on a dime, it slowed down again and stretched out. She bent the notes so that when she talks about “and then I don’t feel so bad”, it was this excavation of so much emotion. Suddenly this song became about the black experience. She talked about the disappointments, she talked about the frustrations and she talked about the longings. Through her interpretation she made that text relevant to the singing in the moment. It became a kind of ritual.
August Wilson is one of our theatrical greats whose works are now part of our American theatrical songbook. We know these works. I could stage [Gem of the Ocean] like we were staging the Sound of Music version of it. We could do it just like it’s been done before. But that wouldn’t be very interesting. What we’re interested in doing is taking Gem of the Ocean, and asking ourselves, why tell this story now? What does it mean to tell this story with these extraordinary performers? How can we let go of the known shape and start to stretch time? Accelerate time. Bend the notes. If we take the drums out of a drumline and put the drums in the body, what happens? What other kinds of shapes and energies are possible? We’re bringing a highly exploratory approach to this work.
It is something that will be different than what you’ve ever seen with August Wilson. My sense is that we are in a community, and you all love this theater and you’re supporters of this theater and you’re interested in these big questions. We’re in quite a time in our country now. A crisis.
You may say, she’s supposed to chop vegetables. Why is she not chopping vegetables? What happens if you let go of the need to have her chop vegetables? And you start to think about the gesture of her doing this work every day. Everybody here does work of one kind or another. We know what it is to carry that work in our body. The energy of that thing can be represented in a number of different ways. I’m curious as to what happens if we let ourselves take this story that we know so well, and like Betty Carter, we’re gonna take the wig off of it. Turn it to the side. And look at who we really are, who these artists really are. And how we really are today, as we tell this story. Because this is a story that needs to be told.
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones is our dramaturg for this production. Omi has written the first book-length project on what is called the theatrical jazz aesthetic, and we are using some of the tenets in our work here. I wanted to invite to Omi to say a little bit about our approach.
Dramaturg Omi Jones:
One of the major ideas in theatrical jazz is the “break”. In jazz music, it’s the moment when the ensemble allows somebody to solo, and the ensemble is always there as support. That improvisational moment of the soloist helps the entire community to soar. That’s part of what the experience of theatrical jazz is. Finding the break. Break in tradition, break in style, break from the known so that improvisation can take us someplace else.
Yesterday the company was talking about liminality. It’s a place that’s not quite here and not quite there, but it’s some wonderful fertile place in between. Some of us believe it’s the place where black creativity is allowed to flourish, because it’s not under the guise of any kind of restriction. When you experience the production, I hope you’ll think about that, and these moments where this company has lifted up some new spaces of possibility.
Another idea in theatrical jazz is the notion of time. Time is always now. The ancestors are not then, but now. The future is not about to, it is now.
Gem of the Ocean chronologically is at the top of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, though it was not the first that he wrote. He set an interesting challenge for himself. He wanted to write a play for each decade of the 20th century that represented the key issue for black people in that decade. For me, the issue in Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, is how in the world do people make black life on the heels of enslavement? We get Emancipation in 1863, we get a failed Reconstruction, and then we have 2016, where those issues still remain with us. Try to think about what it might mean to be something called a citizen.
I argue that we still have not achieved citizenship in the United States. That black people continue to be positioned as non-human. That the very fabric of the United States needs us to be that in order for the states to be what it is. What interests me about Gem of the Ocean is that [Wilson] dares us to ask that question in a potent and personal way. The litany of names—Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown—are evidence that we are still grappling with what it means to be a citizen in the United States of America. It’s one of the ideas that I wanted to be sure to bring to this project.
I will be around not only for this wonderful rehearsal process, but for the run of the show. There will be a lobby where I will be inviting you to participate not at a distance, but actively with this experience, and I would love to hear your feedback. Thank you everybody for this opportunity to share and to see what wonderful sea depths we can traverse together.
Set designer, Kimberlee Koym-Murteira:
I’m excited about doing this production right now. It speaks to me of what is going on in our country, and how people of color deal with the world in a unique and powerful way with multi-layered approaches that draw on their ancestors’ gifts and power. I began working on the play looking at the work of Cornelia Parker, who drew on the reconstructed fragments of burnt, black churches from the 1960s. I see the stage world as a transparent, hollow, plastic version of Cornelia Parker’s remnants of burnt churches. I modernized the dialogue of the play to the materials, using the plastics filling our oceans to build much of the set. I use plastic to create a transparent lens to view the world of the play and to make it shimmer.
The Hill flat, which you can see in the upstage right corner, we see literally through a fragmented backdrop of the neighborhood where August Wilson lived, grew up and wrote the plays. That frames one side of the stage, while the opposite end represents the endless celestial potential of the natural world. A plastic prism stands between, trapped in this plastic is a series of water holes. They represent energy, dormant and present potential, ready to be activated. I hope the set presents a complex, fragmented vision of our world, and allows us a multi-dimensional active response to Wilson’s work. I hope the set is a rich playground for us to explore and respond to our world.
Daniel Alexander Jones:
This set affords us the opportunity to put our primary focus on the bodies of the actors as the site of the telling. Romare Bearden’s collage work was a huge influence on August Wilson. We’re actually going to be making a piece that looks and feels like Bearden, so that we’re going to make a collage actively on the stage at all times.
Costume designer, Katherine Nowacki
I was inspired by Victorian style collaging; using pieces of artwork, news articles, and magazines to create these almost surrealist sort of vignettes. I always love finding historical photographs that represent the characters in the play. I incorporated photographs of our actors into the collages to connect the thread from the ancestors and people of this period to today's generation. There will be a layering and collaged feel to the costumes in the show; through different textures, found objects/pieces, and color.
Daniel Alexander Jones:
We’re likely not going to do any age makeup or wigs. I’m really interested in watching the actors transform. We really wanted to make a silhouette of the costume the thing that carried the story of that time period. The actors are fabulous and they’re going to change before your eyes.