The Story Behind the Photo: "Gem of the Ocean"

Tania Thompson
 | Oct 22, 2020
Gem of the Ocean
L. Scott Caldwell, Shinelle Azoroh, Matt Orduña and Preston Butler III in​ August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jordan Kubat.

About Gem of the Ocean

It’s 1904. Many former slaves and descendants venturing north find themselves at Aunt Ester’s door in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. A renowned cleanser of souls claiming to be 285 years old, Ester provides solace, advice and healing. Citizen Barlow, racked with guilt over letting another man take the rap for of his crimes, desperately wants to be pure again. And Aunt Ester may be his only hope. A mystical story of freedom, justice and redemption from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences.

Preston Butler III was among seven actors who brought August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean to life on the Segerstrom Stage in 2017. The play was special to him on many levels. He selected the photo above as an important moment from the play.

What moment does this depict?

Preston Butler III: This moment depicts Aunt Ester describing in detail the "City of Bones" to an amazed Citizen Barlow using a quilt as an abstract map.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

PB: Truthfully, this was one of the few moments in the play where all I actually did was, literally, sit and listen! I think that we tried me standing at one point, but it just felt right to center both the illustrations of the quilt and the force of Aunt Ester's evocation.

What’s the power about this moment?

PB: L. Scott Caldwell as Aunt Ester IS the power of this moment. I can't begin to tell you how incredible she is as a performer and how much I was in awe each night at this particular moment! Everything about this moment is heightened because Aunt Ester is educating Citizen Barlow about his African ancestry, the Middle Passage, and power of those who died in transport. It is a rollercoaster of intensity, passion and spirituality. The interesting duality of the moment is that, just as Citizen Barlow was forced to reflect on the treacherous voyage of enslaved African peoples, I, too, as Preston was forced to confront this complex and chilling history of our country. I think therein lies the genius and power of August Wilson's work: to put characters onstage from times past in order to gain new perspectives of the present.

Tell us about Citizen Barlow, the character you portrayed.

PB: The journey of Citizen Barlow is one of purpose and discovery. Playwright August Wilson has him grapple with the complexity of being an American—What is freedom? What does it mean to be a citizen? Oddly enough,​ it's more than a century later [than the story is set] and I often find myself engaging similar questions. Citizen chooses to become a liberator for the people. Likewise, I believe I chose the same path when I decided to become an artist. These are defining times for America. Much like the characters in the play, we have an opportunity and responsibility to progress the ideas of citizenship and freedom for generations to come.

Anything else you’d like to say about the production?

PB: Fun fact: this production was my first professional gig! I am eternally grateful to Director Kent Gash, Casting Director Jo​anne DeNaut and the SCR team for trusting me with such a precious part in a stellar cast that included not one but TWO Tony Award-winners [L. Scott Caldwell and Cleavant Derricks]!