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Gem of the Ocean

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 Theatre, was "mesmerized by how [Babatundé] worked his craft."

This spring, Babatundé, who has been a resident company member of many respected theatrical institutions and has appeared on several network television dramas, brought his more than 40 years of theatre experience to Lehigh as the first Theodore U. Horger '61 Artist-in-Residence for the Performing and Visual Arts. He directed the department of theatre's production of Gem of the Ocean, the first installment of playwright August Wilson's 10-play, decade-by-decade chronicle, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which relates 20th-century African-American life.

Gem of the Ocean was nominated for a 2005 Tony Award for best play. At Lehigh, its cast included students, community members and two faculty members—Williams and Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre, both professional actors and members of the Actors' Equity Association.

Williams and Johnson appreciated the opportunity to act alongside their students.

"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," said Williams. "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," said 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."

Babatundé was thankful for the opportunity, and in particular for the collaboration he found with the production's artistic team.

"To see that come to life and evolve is just magnificent," he said.

Photos by Christa Neu

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Gem of the Ocean

Artist-in-residence Akin Babatundé directs a cast of faculty, students and community members in the August Wilson play.