- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

The late playwright August Wilson once commented that he doesn’t dream up his characters. Instead, they walk into his mind, pull up a chair and talk to him. Yet, his most persistent creation was the one who remained silent the longest.

Aunt Ester, a shamanistic bicentenarian as old as slavery, is mentioned in most of the plays in Mr. Wilson’s 10-play, decade-by-decade chronicle of the black American experience, but we never get to meet her until 2004’s “Gem of the Ocean,” which receives its area premiere at Arena Stage under the guidance of British director Paulette Randall.

Lynnie Godfrey needed no introductions. The actress, who plays the elderly but ageless character in the Arena Stage production, has known Aunt Ester all her life.

“When I read the play,” she recalls, “I thought ‘Oh my God, this man wrote a woman I know.’ My grandmother died at 94, and some of my relatives lived to be 103, 104, so I know about longevity. I’d imagine what Aunt Ester would say, and then I’d look down on the page, and it was there. It was scary.”

“Gem of the Ocean” is the ninth play Mr. Wilson wrote for his acclaimed cycle, but in terms of its historical setting it comes first, taking place in 1904 on the playwright’s home turf, Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. Aunt Ester’s house on 1839 Wylie Avenue is a fabled place of peace and refuge, where people come from miles around to get healed and right with themselves.

A young man named Citizen Barlow travels all the way from Alabama to visit the 285-year-old Aunt Ester, and his spiritual sojourn is a history lesson, a cleansing ritual and an exorcism that attempts to rid the body of slavery’s agonizing shackles.

Miss Godfrey believes that Aunt Ester had been with Mr. Wilson from the start, just waiting for the right time to speak, a time when she was sure the playwright would listen.

“To do this play, he had to be man enough to become a woman,” she says. “All of the macho characters and the macho actors like Charles Dutton — he went through all that. Aunt Ester taught him that patience brings greatness. She had a life of service and so did August. He was here to bring messages. When that service is done, they’re gone.”

Paulette Randall has directed four of Mr. Wilson plays and had regarded him as “a bloke who writes for blokes.” With “Gem,” she feels the playwright ventured into heroic, but intimate, territory. “It is really an important piece — it’s huge and so brave of him to do the first play in the cycle in such an epic way.”

But, she’s quick to add, “Gem” is not a grim primer on slavery and ingrained prejudice. “There’s a lot of humor in the play, and August was a very funny man, as well as being quite the raconteur,” she says. “The first time I met him we talked for two days and laughed our heads off. You see a lot of him in Aunt Ester — that wisdom and playfulness, as well as great strength.”

After years of quiet and waiting, his conversation with Aunt Ester was not to last forever. Mr. Wilson died of cancer in 2005, living long enough to see the matriarch portrayed on Broadway by Phylicia Rashad and to complete his saga with the final play, “Radio Golf,” set in the 1990s and centering on two black real estate entrepreneurs who want to tear down Aunt Ester’s house to build a Starbucks and Whole Foods in the gentrifying neighborhood.

Miss Godfrey recognizes a lot of her grandmother and aunts in Aunt Ester, but she also sees someone unexpected — her teacher and mentor, the late Lloyd Richards, who directed many of Mr. Wilson’s plays and steered the emerging playwright from regional productions to prominence on Broadway and beyond.

“Aunt Ester is Lloyd,” she declares. “He knew August was the one, just as Aunt Ester knows in ‘Gem’ that Black Mary is the person who will carry on her healing work.”

Like Mr. Wilson, Miss Godfrey waited a long time before finally meeting Aunt Ester in the flesh. “Lloyd asked me to read for an August Wilson play,” she recalls, “and I said, ‘No. He’s too heavy. I want to sing and dance.’ And the years passed. I found out I was doing ‘Gem,’ and I called Lloyd right away, and he died shortly after. This is a wonderful gift to give my teacher.”

Much of the actress’s career has been devoted to musical theater — shows like “Eubie!” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Damn Yankees” and “Cinderella” — and the experience of working on a serious drama has been one she’d like to repeat. Just not right away.

“I’d like to do other August Wilson plays, but I think, out of respect for him, I need to take a break,” she says. “I need to see what I could bring to other August Wilson plays, because with him, every word means something. Every word is precious.”

WHAT: “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 18.

TICKETS: $46 to $66

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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