brenda phillips

Vin Shambry and Brenda Phillips in "Gem of the Ocean"/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

We talk about freedom in lots of ways, don’t we? The Occupy Portland/Occupy Wall Street  protesters, for example, are suggesting to us that we are less free because giant financial institutions and other corporations have a disproportionate influence over our government: They limit and “manage” our freedom.

This past weekend I saw Artists Repertory Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” and I saw that play partly as a meditation on something I’d call existential freedom: To what extent do we have the capacity as humans to be free?  And I saw Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Petrouchka,” which suggested that freedom is within us, waiting to surface, and that it is connected to love — again a sort of existential argument.

Freedom is at the core of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” too, which Portland Playhouse opened last Saturday at the World Trade Center. And yes, how we as humans understand our own freedom is an important part of it. But the occasion for this discussion isn’t an abstract self-analysis or a measurement of degrees. The opposite of the freedom in “Gem of the Ocean” isn’t lack of enlightenment.

It’s slavery. Real slavery. And that gives an edge to the argument, to the characters attempting to find themselves, to our understanding of what profound effects actual slavery in American must have had, even 40 years after the Civil War. And then, when you think about it, even now.


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