Darius Omar Williams, assistant professor of theatre and Africana Studies, was 17 years old when he met his professional mentor, noted actor, director, writer and teacher Akin Babatundé. Williams, then a student at Jackson State University and an intern at Mississippi’s New Stage Theater, says he was “mesmerized by how [Babatundé] worked his craft.”
“Akin immediately took me under his wing, just this larger-than-life figure, and just the brilliance of his presence—that’s what engaged me,” says Williams.
Babatundé has been a resident company member of many respected theatrical institutions throughout the United States and has appeared as an actor on several network television dramas, including the two-part season premiere of Law & Order: Criminal Intent in 2010 and the PBS family television series, Wishbone. Babatundé’s off-Broadway play, Blind Lemon Blues, received nominations in four categories for the 2010 New York AUDELCO Awards for Excellence in Black Theater.
As the first Theodore U. Horger ’61 Artist-in-Residence for the Performing Arts, Babatundé brings his more than 40 years of experience in theatre to Lehigh. He directs the Department of Theatre’s production of Gem of the Ocean, the first installment of playwright August Wilson’s ten-play, decade-by-decade chronicle, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which relates 20th century African American life.
Set in 1904, Gem of the Ocean was nominated for a Tony Award for best play in 2005. Babatundé describes the play as “a play of transformation.”
“We all have aunts,” he explains. “And [Wilson] has uncannily created this character, Aunt Ester, who is 285 years old and carries the wisdom and the memories of her ancestral past. And with that, she’s able to help people on many different levels by spiritually taking them to something called the City of Bones, whose inhabitants are the people who decided to go and throw themselves in the ocean during the Middle Passage instead of being in slavery. So it’s a very interesting play, very symbolic, but difficult.”
With Gem of the Ocean, Wilson “is reimagining, remaking history in the present,” says Williams. “He is centering the African American experience. ... It is so important for us to recognize and acknowledge the fact that there are so many narratives, so many untold narratives that exist on the margins that need to be told. August Wilson doesn’t need to be done just at African American institutions. August Wilson needs to be done at Lehigh University, and it’s so important for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds to come and see this story, to witness this story. There are so many universal elements that can relate to their human experience as well.”
The play opened at Lehigh in the Diamond Theater of the Zoellner Arts Center on April 8. Its cast includes Lehigh students and community members, as well as two faculty members: Williams and Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre, both of whom are professional actors and members of the Actors’ Equity Association.
“Playing the role of Aunt Ester has been a tremendously gratifying experience full of challenges and rewards,” says Johnson. “Over the last couple of months I've had to dig deep to discover what it means to embody such a prominent character with conviction and authenticity. Playing the role of a 285-year-old matriarch is both physically and vocally demanding. Thankfully, through August Wilson's masterful storytelling, and under the skillful direction of Akin Babatundé, I was able to ground myself in the character, and trust that I would deliver my best, because night after night, that's all everyone was expected to give: their absolute best.”
Both Williams and Johnson have appreciated the opportunity to act alongside their students.
“Normally these are opportunities for students, but we just thought of the fact that we have this great director here, and we felt that it would be a great opportunity and a great experience for the students to interface with faculty members who are also actors,” says Williams, who plays Solly Two Kings, former slave and friend of Aunt Ester who also worked as an Underground Railroad conductor and scout for the Union Army. “This was an opportunity... for them to witness both of us working through our craft.”
“Seven out of the eight student actors in the cast have either studied with me or are currently enrolled in one of my classes this semester,” says Johnson. “It's been a blast acting alongside each of them. I've been able to role model the professional expectations of what it means to be an actor in a play, and ultimately bond on a deeper level with so many of them, based on this unique experience. Every night they've inspired me to give my best, and I'd like to think I've encouraged them to do the same.”
For Williams, who had not acted on stage in more than eight years, Babatundé’s residence at Lehigh provided a unique opportunity.
“I never thought that I would have an opportunity to be in a cast where he is at the helm of director,” says Williams. “And Akin, to me, is royalty in how he sits in the theatre. There’s a strong sense of presence. ... [He] got me on the right track, and I feel like I am now owning Solly Two Kings. When I walk into that space, I am Solly Two Kings. After this rehearsal process, this glorious process, I’m ready to continue my work on the stage. And so I don’t think it’ll be another eight years.”
Babatundé is thankful for the collaboration he found with the production’s artistic team, which includes lighting designer Laura Bickford, set and costume designer Erica Hoelscher, sound designer Phillip Ingle and technical director Andrew Southard. The right collaboration, Babatundé says, is “ever so important.”
“To see that come to life and evolve is just magnificent,” he says. “I am beyond honored and proud and grateful that I’ve made Darius proud of me being here, that I did not come and rest on any kind of laurel that I might have had, but I did the work. I love doing the work.”
Gem of the Ocean continues on April 13, 14, 15 and 16 in the Diamond Theater of the Zoellner Arts Center. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos by Christa Neu