GEM OF THE OCEAN – Written by August Wilson; Directed by donnie l. betts.  Produced by the Aurora Fox Arts Center (9900 East Colfax Ave, Aurora) through April 14.  Tickets available at 303-739-1970 or 

The Aurora Fox team kicked off its 2024 season under the new leadership of Richard Cowden with an announcement of their intention to produce August Wilson’s entire 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle in chronological order over the next ten years.  This means we can anticipate a production of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM next year and THE PIANO LESSON in the following year and so on through the cycle.  An ambitious undertaking.  While the Denver Center completed the cycle with a production of Wilson’s final script, RADIO GOLF, in 2008, it did not present the stories in chronological order.  

This Aurora Fox production of the play GEM OF THE OCEAN set in 1904 held the potential for an outstanding beginning to this project.  donnie l. betts (lower case deliberate) was given the task of directing this first effort.  His experience in filmmaking, directing and acting is legend in Denver and includes a Henry Award as Best Director for THE MOUNTAINTOP in 2020.  He has directed multiple productions at the Fox, including PORGY AND BESS and COLOR PURPLE. 

A cast of some of the finest Black actors in Denver was assembled to tell this story.  Chris Davenport is familiar to theatregoers as Hoke in a recent production of DRIVING MISS DAISY at Vintage and for his award-winning turn in THE ROYALE for BETC.  Anyone who had the good fortune to see Faith Goins-Simmons perform in PORGY AND BESS at the Fox will never forget it.  Abner Genece has cut a swath through Denver theatres with a recent season as a member of the Black Box Repertory troupe at the Arvada Center and a fun turn at the Savoy in UNDONE: The Lady M Project. Alicia Young is well known in theatre circles as an award-winning actress for her work in THE ROYALE and her recent cabaret-type performance at the Fox in BLUES IN THE NIGHT. Joshua Levy just finished a demanding role in Benchmark’s production of BLASTED.  Chaz Grundy is a familiar name to those of us who go back a few years and Steffen Beal is the new boy in town turning heads.  You couldn’t find a more qualified group of people to bring Mr. Wilson’s story to life. 

The production team at the Fox has been assembled over the years and has created some of the finest produced works in Denver.  The sets by Technical Director Brandon Phillip Case have and continue to astound.  Who could ever forget the revolving bus in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT and the field of daffodils in BIG FISH, just to name a few?  Jen Orf has been their long time Production Manager and Lighting Designer and knows the space intimately.  El Armstrong has been designing sound for decades and Casey Burnham knows how to make it shine in every production.  Linda Morken has been designing costumes for generations of people on stage, most notably at BDT Stage, right up to the end.  Brett Maughan is a familiar face to Fox folk, while the new people on the staff that Rich Cowden has brought in are some of the best in the business in their field. 

There are some truly memorable things about this production.  Abner Genece plays Caesar, a Black Simon-Legree type constable for the community.  He has become arrogant and belligerent because of the powers bestowed upon him.  Abner’s characterization is bombastic, bigger-than-life, and dynamic.  He doesn’t bother with knocking on the door before he ENTERS a room and throws fear into anyone he finds there.  Except his younger sister Black Mary, played by Faith Goins-Simmons, with quiet dignity and a non-nonsense attitude toward all men.  Especially Citizen Barlow, a newcomer from the South who has come to the house in search of healing but feels a masculine obligation to suggest a liaison to Black Mary.  Steffen Beal plays him as a good man tormented by guilt and a little puzzled by the inhabitants of the house at 1839 Wylie Avenue where they gather.   

Aunt Ester, played by Alicia Young, is a spiritual healer for her community, a woman with deep understanding of human nature and an almost mystical comprehension of the soul of her people.  One of the most moving scenes in the production is a visual journey to the spiritual City of Bones deep under the ocean.  The cast and crew recreate in ritual form a journey deep into the water to visit the place where the bones of those who didn’t make it across the ocean on the slave ships lie.  Aunt Ester describes their journey and the reason they are making it to heal and forgive Citizen. The projections, lighting and music used in this scene are moving and add depth to the whole experience. 

Despite everything working in favor of this production, it did not come together with mind-blowing clarity the way it should have.  Why do we remember moments but not the overall journey of these people? Why, when the actors on stage are relaying something to someone else on stage, do they turn away from them and speak instead to the audience?  Why do so many speeches have a ten-second pause before continuing to the next line? Why does it take three and a half hours to tell this story? 

Part of my purpose as a theatre writer is to tell whoever reads this article for guidance about what you are going to experience when you attend this (or any) theatre is to tell you what to expect.  GEM is the first of Wilson’s cycle; that alone should generate your interest as a serious-minded theatregoer.  You have the opportunity to see a script that isn’t done often and is part of an honored piece of American theatre.  You are going to see a production professionally presented.  You are going to see some moments of brilliance and you are going to have a loooong theatre evening.  Just saying . . . . . 

A WOW factor of 8! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *