August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’ continues

The Lehigh University Department of Theatre’s run of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean continues April 13-16, 2016

“August Wilson at the top of his form—a touchstone for everything else he has written.”
~The New York Times

Photo from Lehigh University Brown and White

Photo from Lehigh University Brown and White

Lehigh University’s Department of Theatre continues its 2015-2016 season with the Award-winning playwright August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. Directed by Akin Babatundé, the Theodore U. Horger ’61 Artist-in-Residence for the Performing and Visual Arts, the performances will be held in Diamond Theater on April 8, 9 and 13-16 at 7:30pm; with a 2pm performance on Sunday, April 10. Tickets are $12 ($5 students) and available at  There is a special “Pay-What-You-Wish” performance on Wednesday, April 13 at 7:30pmContact Ticket Services for details.

Gem of the Ocean is the ninth play in Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle that chronicles a century of African American life, an unprecedented dramatic series that includes Fences and The Piano Lesson.  Set in Pittsburgh, PA in 1904, it is the eve of the 287th birthday of former slave, Aunt Ester, a keeper of tradition and a cleanser of souls.  When Citizen Barlow comes to her home seeking asylum and redemption, she sets him off on a poetic and spiritual journey to find the City of Bones at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, a repository of the memory and tragedy of the Middle Passage. According to Babatunde, “Celebrated playwright August Wilson has created an aunt, a mythical, uncanny, wise yet human figure in the character of Aunt Ester. Her home at 1839 Wiley is a place of release, rejuvenation and resurrection of purpose. She cocoons the legacy of tragedy, triumph and transformation of an enslaved people embodied in her 285 years of spiritual wisdom. I invite you to embrace the journey she may take you on this evening-a journey of revelation intertwined with hope, joy and recognition.”

Director Akin Babatunde’ is the Theodore U. Horger ’61 Artist-in-Residence for the Performing and Visual Arts at Lehigh University’s Department of Theatre, where he teaches. Babatundé, a native of Brooklyn, is an accomplished actor, director and writer whose theatrical career spans off-Broadway, regional theatre, film and television. He has been a resident company member of prestigious theatrical institutions throughout the country: Trinity Rep (Providence, Rhode Island), Alley Theater (Houston, Texas), La Mama Theater (New York City) and the Dallas Theater Center. He is founder and artistic director of Vivid Theater Ensemble of Dallas and founder of Ebony Emeralds Classic Theater Company. Babatunde’ was the first African American to direct for the Dallas Shakespeare Festival in the celebrated diverse production of Taming of the Shrew in 1993. As a writer, his work has been commissioned by Florida Stage, La Mama Theater, the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, Brown University, the Black Academy of Arts and the and Core Ensemble. His most recent work Shakespeare – Midnight Echoes tours in Texas paying homage to black performing artists who performed Shakespeare from slavery to the present. He has toured extensively with Core Ensemble in Of Ebony Embers – Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance. His one-man show, Before the Second Set – A Visit with Satchmo has received critical acclaim at theaters across the country. Babatundé along with Dr. Alan Govenar wrote and starred in Blind Lemon Blues, which toured in Europe (Paris, Geneva, Brussels, Amsterdam) and received rave notices in The New York Times at its 2004 New York premiere at Central Park’s Summer Stage. His television appearances include Law and Order and the PBS family-oriented literary television series, Wishbone. Babatundé’s work has been awarded a Dallas Observer Best Actor Award (the first African American to receive this distinction), 1991, 2004, 2015 Dallas Critics Forum Award, the 2004 Legacy of Success, and the Alvin Ailey Performing Arts Award. He received the prestigious Individual Artists Grant from the Palm Beach County Cultural Council to create a new work Harvest of Voices based on oral histories. He is a renowned arts educator, having undertaken five long-term artist residencies in underserved communities in Florida, creating new music theatre works alongside at-risk teens and community members. Theatre impresario Ellen Stewart of LaMama Theatre describes him as “one of those rare geniuses who comes into our lives.” Babatundé holds a Master of Arts degree in Arts and Humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas.  Babatunde’ is the brother of Tony Award nominated and Emmy Award-winning actor Obba Babatunde’.

August WilsonAugust Wilson (April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005) authored Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf. These works explore the heritage and experience of African-Americans, decade-by-decade, over the course of the twentieth century. His plays have been produced at regional theaters across the country and all over the world, as well as on Broadway. In 2003, Wilson made his professional stage debut in his one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned. Wilson’s works garnered many awards including Pulitzer Prizes for Fences (1987); and for The Piano Lesson (1990);a Tony Award for Fences; Great Britain’s Olivier Award for Jitney; as well as eight New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Jitney, and Radio Golf. Additionally, the cast recording of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom received a 1985 Grammy Award, and Wilson received a 1995 Emmy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of The Piano Lesson. Wilson’s early works included the one-act plays The Janitor, Recycle, The Coldest Day of the Year, Malcolm X, The Homecoming and the musical satire Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.

The cast features Lehigh University professors Kashi Johnson as Aunt Ester and Darius Omar Williams as Solly Two Kings, Lehigh University students Ovie Ojeni (Citizen), Kelly Petty, Jr. (Eli), Donavon Harris (Caesar), Ryan Higgins (Rutherford Selig), Katie Pettis (Black Mary), with Josiah Murrell, Jamir Connelly and Jamal Connelly as Ensemble of Bones along with LU staff member Karen Sims.

The design team includes, Andrew Southard, production manager; Matt Faragrasso, assistant technical director; professor Erica Hoelscher costume and set designer; Pam Richey, costume coordinator; Laura Bickford, lighting design; Phil Ingle, sound designer; Sara Vreeland, stage manager; and Jamil Barillas, assistant stage manager.

For further reading:
More about Babtunde’s residency in the Lehigh University College of Arts and Science blog post, Master Class.
Lehigh’s Brown and White also produced this preview for your interest.
More about the production at the Lehigh University Communications article here.

Tickets to Gem of the Ocean are available for $12 ($5 students/$10 Lehigh faculty & staff). There is a special “Pay-What-You-Wish” performance onWednesday, April 13 at 7:30pm.  For information, call 610-758-2787, ext. 0, visit Zoellner Ticket Services, Tuesday 12-6 pm, Wednesday – Friday from 12 –5 pm, 2 hours before curtain, or order online.  Senior, student, group and LVAIC discounts are available.