Never have I felt so much gratitude to actors for their vulnerability. Even the curtain call was full of emotion.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Portland Center Stage. Photo by Alec Lugo.

Maybe you’ve seen the 2020 film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name. That production and Gem of the Ocean are two parts of the 10-play American Century Cycle, a series of plays written by Wilson over the course of 26 years, one for each decade of the 20th century. Denzel Washington says of translating these plays into film, “The greatest part of what’s left of my career is making sure that August is taken care of.” Wilson’s depiction of the Black experience, which won him the Pulitzer Prize twice, is raw, honest and sacred.

But don’t wait for the films. See Gem of the Ocean live at Portland Center Stage at the Armory through April 3. I’ve never experienced anything quite like being in the presence of Aunt Ester Tyler, played brilliantly by Treasure Lunan. It was the most powerful performance I’ve seen by a single actor all season, possibly in my whole life. From comedic timing that had the audience belly-laughing, to haunting vocals, I doubt there’s anything Treasure Lunan can’t do.

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August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Portland Center Stage. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

As we walked to the parking garage after the performance, I kept seeing Aunt Ester’s face, and feeling what a gift it was for Lunan to give so much to the audience. The trauma in this production is — tragically —still so contemporary, even over a century after the setting of the play. Gem of the Ocean is full of strength and hope and power, but it will absolutely break your heart.

I know it’s hard to make space for a night out. Finding a sitter, and then paying a sitter in addition to tickets can make doing something for yourself feel out of reach. Portland Center Stage hears that. Check out their ticket specials, which include “pay what you will performances” (March 31 for Gem of the Ocean), $25 rush and standby tickets, $5 Arts for All tickets, and more. Runtime is three hours, so you’re likely looking at at least four hours of childcare that will be worth every penny. Have teens in the house? This production is recommended for ages 14 and up.

Please see this show. I hardly took notes, I was so enthralled. I didn’t want to miss an expression, a gesture, a look. Gem of the Ocean is an unforgettable experience I will carry with me forever. I wish our kids were old enough to have seen it with us.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean
Portland Center Stage at the Armory
March 5-April 3
Runtime is approximately 3 hours, including intermission.
U.S. Bank Main Stage
Audio described: March 20, 2 pm
Sign Interpreted: March 24, 7:30 pm
Open Captioned: March 26, 2 pm
Buy tickets here.

Meg Asby

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