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Jersey's Best: Power couple return to Two River Theater for collaboration in ‘Gem of the Ocean’

Celebrated actors and West Orange residents, Brandon J. Dirden and Crystal Dickinson will star in the upcoming production of “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson at Two River Theater in Red Bank beginning June 8. This is the married couple’s 10th collaboration with the theater, and they are passionate about the place. “Two River Theater is just one of the many things that make New Jersey special. It’s the work they do and the  manner in which they do it,” Crystal said.

Dickinson was born in Irvington and attended Seton Hall University intending to be an elementary school teacher. An inspiring professor changed her trajectory and she went on to graduate school at University of Illinois in Urbana for an MFA. That’s where she met Brandon J. Dirden, a Houston native from an acting family. His younger brother, Jason, is also an actor and so is their father, Willie. Dirden made his acting debut at 12 in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner Come and Gone” at Houston’s Alley Theater, beginning his enriching association with the late playwright’s work.

The couple came to New York and compiled impressive credits on Broadway where Dirden portrayed Martin Luther King in “All the Way” and was in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew, “the revival of “Take Me Out,” and “Clybourne Park” where Dickinson played his wife. Off-Broadway he appeared in Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” and “Jitney.” He played Agent Dennis Aderholt on the popular FX series “The Americans” and Dickinson played Det. Alice Toussaint  on Showtime’s “The Chi.”

But theater is their passion, and they are almost evangelical when they talk about it. Dickinson has taught acting at Seton Hall and Princeton universities and Dirden is currently an associate professor in the graduate acting department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. They have a young son, Chase Ari, who has demonstrated the talent and pluck of an artist.

At Two River they played husband and wife in “A Raisin in the Sun”  (with brother Jason in the cast) and last year, Dirden directed Dickinson in the acclaimed Two River production of “Wine in the Wilderness” by Alice Childress. The Star-Ledger called her performance “Boisterous and mesmerizing.”

I asked Dickinson what it was like to be directed by her husband. “Brandon is a wonderful actor and even more exceptional director. He only asks you to bring your best. He loves theater and knows how to tell a story.” Dirden feels the same about working with his wife. “She’s a brilliant artist.”

They are passionate about the work of August Wilson who passed away in 2012. Dirden has directed his “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II” at Two River.

“We have everything right here.” Dickinson said.

“There are no shortcuts. Broadway is just a location. Wherever you’re telling the story — that’s the audience that needs to hear that story,” he said.

They’ve found that audience at Two River.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, “Gem of the Ocean” is chronologically the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle, a series of 10 plays exploring the Black experience in America throughout the 20th century. The fantastical story revolves around 285-year-old Aunt Esther who guides a young man from Alabama on a spiritual awakening. Its 2004 Broadway production earned five Tony nominations. “Gem of the Ocean” is the seventh Wilson play to be staged by Two River, which is committed to staging all 10 of August Wilson’s plays. This production is directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Two River Artistic Director Justin Waldman who has history with “Gem of the Ocean,” said, “It fills me with joy and reverence to rejoin this journey with beloved artists and friends like Crystal and Brandon.”

Dickinson is an unabashed cheerleader for New Jersey. “Our beautiful state is full of diversity of thought and culture, and we welcome and celebrate those differences. It’s one of the many things that make our state special. Two River Theater is another.”

For tickets and information, click here.