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LA Theater Review

Gem of the Ocean

The first play in August Wilson's cycle chronicling the African-American experience, a cri de coeur, jabs at the soul and cracks the heart open at this moment in history when the possibility exists of an African American becoming president. Much has changed since 1904, when Citizen Barlow (a sadly appealing Keith Arthur Bolden) breaks into the home of Aunt Ester (a splendidly formidable Juanita Jennings), a reputedly 287-year-old shaman, in order to have his "soul washed." Barlow feels a huge hole in his soul because he escaped arrest for theft by letting an innocent man drown. Ester's house is a sanctuary for fugitives fleeing slavery, as well as others seeking solace and sustenance. It's also a house of characters, headed by Aunt Ester, who can go from cool to cruel when inhumanity or injustice is served. Eli (a spirited Jeris Lee Poindexter), her tough-minded gatekeeper, doubles as resident lap dog and fierce pit bull when bared fangs are required. Black Mary, housekeeper and a key part of Ester's home security system, is stunningly played by Tene' Carter-Miller. Her bullying brother, Caesar, who uses his Kapo position to keep his uppity black brothers in their place, is a scarily fine Rodney Gardiner. Atop this eclectic group is Solly Two Kings (Adolphus Ward in a magnetic, royally huge performance), an Underground Railroad transporter who's more than a tad in love with Ester — and with the danger of portering disenfranchised slaves to America or Canada. Also on the team is Rutherford Selig (a likable Stephen Marshall), an itinerant peddler, who's there when needed. Aunt Ester, steeped in voodoo lore, stages an ecstatic vision quest that takes the haunted Citizen Barlow on a miraculous journey over the ocean on a paper boar to the City of Bones, where dead slaves lie beneath the sea and where Citizen may find his own distressed soul. Visually weird but wonderfully staged by director Ben Bradley — with settings by Travis Gale Lewis, lighting by Christian Epps, projections by Marc Rosenthal, and sound by David B. Marling — this set piece of magical realism is a play in itself. While this injected scene is theatrical and cunningly executed, it's a lengthy distraction for the audience who must define its meaning while still digesting Wilson's logorrheic text, which additionally confounds those not familiar with Black English. Nonetheless, the whole experience is well worth the freight.

Presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 11-Dec. 21. (323) 663-1525.

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