All around Cleveland this spring, various theaters have been celebrating the works of August Wilson, a 20th-century, African-American playwright whose plays showcase and portray the African-American experience in America. His Pittsburgh Cycle chronicles 10 decades in 10 separate plays, many of which have recently been presented at local venues including Cleveland Play House, East Cleveland Theater and Karamu House.
I had the great pleasure of seeing, Gem of the Ocean, the first installment of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, but the last of the series brought to Cleveland stages at Karamu House. What I saw was a diverse cast with dynamic passions that jump off the stage and steal our hearts. Gem of the Ocean centers around an unconventional family of sorts living together in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Ester, has a spiritual gift of cleansing souls. She is sought out by people who hear of her skills, one being Citizen Barlow, who comes to Aunt Ester to be renewed. Aunt Ester also befriends Solly Two Kings, a man born into slavery,
who once scouted for the Union army, and Black Mary, a woman searching to find herself in the midst of her own stubbornness. The group doesn’t proceed without obstacles, particularly Caesar Wilkes, an overbearing policeman who strives to keep order during a time of civil unrest.
The play is a great story of love, power and redemption that is wonderfully executed by the cast at the Karamu House. They seem to capture the essence of the emotion and the mood of that era. It is no surprise that Karamu has such a seasoned and experienced group; they have been producing great plays for almost a century, and will celebrate their centennial in 2015. Karamu House is the oldest African-American playhouse in the nation, and has been home to some well-known alum including Langston Hughes, a famous black renaissance playwright; black exploitation film actor, Ron O’Neal, star of Superfly, and Robert Guillaume from TV’s Benson. Most recently, Karamu alumni, James Pickens Jr., from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy was honored with an NAACP Image Award. While Karamu House has launched the careers of several great actors, Ohio is noted for being the birthplace of many great actors according to Scene In Ohio.
Karamu House has a history of putting on very inspiring and beautifully directed performances. In the fall, the critically acclaimed, Broadway musical, The Color Purple will make its way to the Karamu stage, and during the winter holiday, Langston Hughes’ work, Black Nativity, will return. Gem of the Ocean is on stage now through June 3. For a complete listing of performances, visit www.karamuhouse.org.