‘Gem of the Ocean’ addresses race and slavery


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Beginning this Friday, Lehigh’s department of theatre will present “Gem of the Ocean,” a play written by Augustus Wilson and directed by accomplished actor, director and writer Akin’ Babatunde’.

“It is a play of transformation,” Babatunde’ said.

The transformation takes place in the home of Aunt Ester, he said, who provides a cocoon for looking at oneself moving past one’s trials and bondage.

“She takes us on the journey through the Middle Passage of those souls who were lost and sometimes by their choice decided to jump into the Atlantic Ocean rather than go into slavery,” Babatunde’ said.

Kashi Johnson, who plays Aunt Ester, is an associate professor of theatre at Lehigh. She gave further insight into the play and her character — a woman known as a “washer of souls.”

“She helps people to find new ways to live in truth after helping them come to terms with whatever they’re trying to hide from,” Johnson said.

She also said she believes this a universal play, meaning it can resonate with anyone.

“There are times in everyone’s life where they are in search of something more, or there is something holding us back,” she said. “I think this a great story to show you that you are not alone and there are ways to move through things and through life and have hope.”

The play specifically addresses issues of race and slavery, as the main focus is about the Middle Passage, the path on which Africans were traded during the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Darius Williams, an assistant professor of theatre and Africana studies, plays Solly Two Kings.

“African-American plays are not done on a consistent basis,” Williams said. “Fortunately, since I have been here we have been doing more plays centered around the African-American experience.”

Diversity is not something of convenience, he said. It is something that needs to be active and consistent in any department, and he thinks Lehigh’s theater department is starting to do that well.

Williams said he gives a lot of credit to Babatunde’ for directing a play of this nature — a process that began in February.

“Akin’ Babatunde’ workshopped us early because he wanted us to access the necessary tools we needed to tell this story,” Williams said. “He started with historical background and really honed in his artistic approach.”

Babatunde’ said he is excited by the growth and transformation he has seen in his actors. One of the most important aspects for the actors to learn, he said, was Wilson’s use of language.

“There is a rhythm to the language,” he said. “It is like speaking jazz.”

Babatunde’ compared the language to Shakespearean English, which is why — in addition to the fact that her lines are “magnanimous” — Johnson said she found learning her lines to be one of the most challenging aspects of preparing for this show.

Babatunde’ said a lot of effort went into every aspect of this play and everyone from the actors to the production staff to the design team went above and beyond.

Because of the months of hard work that were put into the production, the cast is enthusiastic to see how the Lehigh community will respond.

“I think they will be engaged and on the edge of their seats,” Williams said. “The energy of the production is there. The story is being told so well.”

Johnson agreed that she thinks the Lehigh community will enjoy experiencing this play.

“There are fun moments and there are very touching emotional moments,” she said. “(Babatunde’) has directed in a way that there is something for everybody.”

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