A gift to the Bay Area’s theatre landscape, the Lower Bottom Playaz didn’t so much perform “Gem of the Ocean” as collectively channel it.
With experience producing Shakespeare, this company has found a niche no other can fill in quite the same way with the plays of August Wilson, often called the American Shakespeare. Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wilson (d. 2005) achieved a career of enormous distinction—among other things, winning his first Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award in 1987, and another Pulitzer in 1990.
Wilson’s famous Century Cycle, also called the Pittsburgh Cycle, tells the story of 100 years of African American life, one play for each decade of the twentieth-century. Even though Wilson wrote “Gem of the Ocean” ninth (it premiered in 2003), it is chronologically the first of the ten plays, set in 1904. By that time, a matter of decades had passed since the American Civil War (1861-65), and no character in the play escapes living in relation to the palpable shadow of slavery and its terrible legacy.
Reginald Wilkins, Evander Johnson, Venus Morris.
The play unfolds in large part around the kitchen table of a sanctuary house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an area created by a range of insidious policies that essentially corralled African American citizens into segregated neighborhoods. The ingenious single set (by Aaron Swar) and evocative costumes (by Regina Evans) were pitch perfect, quietly suggesting both good taste hampered by poverty of means, and a believable visual world for the companionship and violence to come.
The magnetic field that holds together the sanctuary, the household, the collection of inhabitants and visitors along with their dreams and nightmares, is Aunt Ester Tyler. Youthful crone, white witch, Black shaman, magicker, Ester is said to be 285 years old with a gift for washing souls and guiding them to their truth on the floor of the Atlantic where the Gem of the Ocean slave ship lies, in a city made of bones. Young Citizen Barlow, come north from Alabama with a bad conscience, seeks just such soul-cleansing help from Ester Tyler. Here, Ester is played by the marvelous Cat Brooks, much loved as a longtime actress of stage and screen, and a well-known political activist; Citizen Barlow is the intense and lyrical Stanley Hunt—Best Actor Award, New York film festival (for “Licks”):
Stanley Hunt, Cat Brooks
Accepted into Ester’s home, Citizen Barlow joins the close circle around her: Solly Two Kings, born into slavery, now selling dog excrement to survive (the impressive and tender Reginald Wilkins, a recognized actor-musician-poet-sculptor); Eli, Solly’s cohort in the Underground Railroad days, now Ester’s protector (the quietly elegant Evander Johnson, busy actor originally from Philadelphia); Black Mary Wilks, housekeeper and Ester’s protégée (the sweet and feisty Venus Morris, regular company member); Black Mary’s brother, Caesar Wilks, a baker turned ruthless constable (the irresistible Pierre Scott, here the villain, elsewhere the savior); Rutherford Selig, peddler and loyal friend of the household (the endearing Christopher Weddle, a Meisner-trained TV-Film actor, BFA Scenic Design). These actors give the impression of being in a symbiotic relationship with their characters, and as a troupe,
they are the embodiment of an “acting ensemble.”
Even in the powerful group and two-person scenes, the playwright gives each of the characters a juicy long monologue that could easily get the better of an actor. But from this production, it’s difficult to choose just one to show readers.
Stanley Hunt, Reginald Wilkins, Evander Johnson
Oakland is a city, but if you know anything about it, you know Oakland is also an identity. This intrepid theatre group is fiercely grounded in the experience of West Oakland. In its heyday, from the 1940s to the ‘60s, West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms district was known as “The Harlem of the West,” serving as a cultural center for African Americans, and its venues attracting the best jazz and blues musicians from around the nation. The story of the area’s demise is poignant and appalling, full of blatant greed and bigotry, and later, the suspicious introduction of drugs.
Twenty years ago, the Lower Bottom Playaz started out plying their talents in parking lots and homeless shelters: Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin; “Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth.” Gentrified out of their more recent West Oakland performance spaces, they have landed at the Flight Deck’s delightful 99-seat black box theatre downtown. Having successfully gone all the way through the Century Cycle once before, this production marks the beginning of their commitment to doing it all over again.
Stanley Hunt, Evander Johnson (masked).
This is generating quite a buzz. There have been other productions of the individual plays all across the country since the 1980s, and Hollywood actor Denzel Washington announced in late 2015 that he would produce, direct and act in one play of the Cycle per year for the next decade, for television; the series is now said to be coming in 2020. The fact remains that—well, the Lower Bottom Playaz’ materials keep the record straight, with moxie:
In January of 2016, Ayodele Nzinga became the only director, the only producer, her Lower Bottom Playaz, the only theatrical entity of any size anywhere in the known world to fully stage the complete works of August Wilson's American Century Cycle in chronological order of the 100 years represented in Wilson's seminal achievement.
Indeed, in the eye of this storm of talent is Ayodele Nzinga, a force of nature in her own right, conjuring theatre, community, funding, spaces, players and advocates where no one could expect to find them. An accomplished actress and playwright, a fantastic published poet, holder of M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. degrees and recipient of multiple awards, Nzinga has been rustling up the arts in Oakland/Bay Area circles for over forty years. She commands respect for her work, earning support for her theatre company at the city, county and state levels in an era of measly arts subsidy—as Nzinga regularly reminds her audiences before and after each show. Taking matters into her own hands, Nzinga herself has raised over $600,000 on behalf of her activities and cohorts. To do this, she wielded her trademark combination of outrage, charm, fervor, dignity, humor and profuse love.
Cat Brooks, co-director of this play (in fact, all leading actresses are effectively co-directors), told the audience in her after-show, passing-the-hat remarks: “Ayo[dele] picks people off the street and gives them the gift of theatre.” This has been true for so long that Nzinga’s Lower Bottom Playaz has just been awarded the coveted California Arts Council grant to support its 20th Season in Oakland. This will certainly include more August Wilson: as Nzinga said of Wilson when she addressed the house: “Just because our affair didn’t start until he was dead doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
Stanley Hunt, Cat Brooks.
At its heart, this production of the play was about storytelling. Again and again, the characters paired up, one doing the telling and one the listening, then perhaps switching; one remembering, the other witnessing, before changing partners. After a while, this combining and re-combining took on a rhythm, becoming a kind of quadrille of memory; a cotillion of trauma, loss, history.
In acting terms, this meant that for long sections, the characters simply sat and listened to each other. They gave each other their full attention, undistracted, and told their stories in Wilson’s gorgeous flights of language so deceptively simple that they catch you off guard when they turn complicated: Are freed slaves free? I have seen countless clips of scenes from other productions and none of the actors have had the raw directness, the scrappy, hungering grace that these actors had, the sense of “lived experience,” never striking an inauthentic note. I suppose Nzinga prepared us for that in her program notes, which ended with: “Feel free to make correlations to the present moment in Oakland, CA.”
Venus Morris, Christopher Weddle, Cat Brooks, Evander Johnson,
Pierre Scott, Reginald Wilkins (on table).
The production also brought wonderfully to the fore the text’s element of theatricality—its play-within-a-play-ness. At key moments, the characters “staged” an event. When they knew the law-and-order Constable was coming, they “staged” a tableau of absolute nonchalance. When the Constable shot and killed Solly, the others spontaneously staged a ceremony for Solly’s body stretched out on the kitchen table, all circling him together, each one stopping to pay final respects.
The central scene in Citizen Barlow’s journey to spiritual selfhood is the “staging” of his trip to the City of Bones at the center of the world. With Aunt Ester at the figurative helm, and a little paper boat as a talisman to carry Citizen to another level of consciousness, together Citizen’s companions create for him a mystical experience summoned through chanting, calling, singing, rhythm-making, and the hypnotic suggestion that he has arrived where he can be cleansed from the inside. That is, they show Citizen how to travel with his mind. They give Citizen the gift of the theatre of the mind.
Reginald Wilkins (masked), Venus Morris (at back), Cat Brooks (in red),
Evander Johnson (masked), Stanley Hunt (on floor).
Directorially, the build that was reached by these methods were all the more stunning for not having any “tech” component at all: no supplemental background music, no imposed video or CGI, no computerized lighting effects. The pacing was so expert that the stillnesses were earned, the silences full of thinking and feeling.
Occasionally, the dialects were dense enough that I missed things. But I was carried over any sticky patches by the compelling cadences, the clarity of the situations, and by the unaffected recitations of poetry, the singing, and the moral authority of all the performances.
The Lower Bottom Playaz’ 2019 “Gem of the Ocean” was a gem of the theatre season.
Front: Director-Producer Ayodele Nzinga.
Back: Christopher Weddle, Venus Morris,
Evander Johnson, Cat Brooks, Reginald Wilkins,
Stanley Hunt, Pierre Scott.
Reginald Wilkins, Cat Brooks
Photos and Videos: Lower Bottom Playaz