A new generation of theater artists has begun to wrestle with the profound, poetic, and politically charged plays of August Wilson, who died in 2005. Pasadena Playhouse is presenting his early drama Jitney beginning June 21, and through June 10, Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre is staging one of his last works, 2003’s Gem of the Ocean. Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1904, Gem is the first work chronologically in his remarkable 10-play cycle documenting the African-American experience in the 20th century. Its characters include a young laborer who feels deep guilt for indirectly causing another man’s death, and the establishment’s 285-year-old proprietor, Aunt Ester, who “cleanses souls” through a ritual that connects troubled people with their forgotten history and culture.
While this rather long-winded play is marred by some overly obvious symbolism, there’s no denying its cumulative power; it’s a majestic piece of work. Director James O’Neil’s production, however, is only partially successful. While the staging boasts several strong, vivid portrayals — particularly Anthony Haney as an elderly ex-slave still fighting for justice and Chris Butler as an angry, self-loathing black man who has embraced white culture with a chilling ferociousness — the actors have yet to coalesce into a true ensemble, and celebrated Broadway veteran Lillias White feels miscast as Aunt Ester. Opening night, she flubbed some lines; more problematically, her performance had a slightly hammy, show-biz tinge ill-suited to this deadly serious material. Similarly, Tom Giamario’s staircase-dominated set felt impressively imposing yet slightly off. These reservations aside, Wilson’s plays aren’t often performed in our area, and this is a welcome opportunity to experience the work of a great American writer who died far too soon.