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URBANA — One of the 10 plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, for which the late August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes, "Gem of the Ocean" is a mighty work chronicling generations of black people, nine in the same neighborhood.

The Illinois Theatre production opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight and runs through Oct. 27 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Audience members “are drawn to ‘Gem’ because of the character Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester is mentioned in several of the cycle plays, but ‘Gem’ is the only play that we get a chance to meet her,” director Chuck Smith said.

Aunt Ester is the matriarch, 285 years old in 1904, the same age as the history of slavery in the Americas.

She was brought from Africa in “the middle passage” on a ship named Gem of the Ocean.

The matriarch is played by Lisa Gaye Dixon, also the Illinois Theatre producer and a veteran actor.

Ester is a “soul-cleanser.”

Dixon describes the “soul-cleanser” as “metaphorical, of course.”

“And a bit mystical,” she added. “But mostly, I think, it is about being accepting of others, their faults, vulnerabilities and human-ness; and recognizing the value and possibility of contribution for each life — and how to help them to ‘stand in the light.’”

The former slave is a life force.

And she’s not the only former slave in the production. Her friend Solly Two Kings was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He later served in the Union Army.

The play is steeped in the history of injustice.

“I did do some research on the playwright,” Dixon said, “although I had known much about him already.

“I knew quite a bit about the middle passage already, so was able to use that information. I did learn about the state of life for African Americans during this time period in the South, and that was new (and sad) for me.”

In the play, Aunt Ester has the lines “People say you crazy to remember. But I ain’t afraid to remember. I try to remember out loud. I keep my memories alive. I feed them. I got to feed them, otherwise they’d eat me up.”

Dixon is a veteran of Wilson’s plays.

Her first professional role as an actress was as Rose “in the iconic and most well-known of his plays, ‘Fences.’ Although I was much too young at the time, I learned a lot about acting during the process.”

Smith, Goodman Theatre’s resident director, is also a Wilson veteran. He was the dramaturge for Goodman’s world premiere of “Gem of the Ocean.”

In this production, he re-imagined the eerie City of Bones monologue.

Smith said using student talent for a Wilson play was unusual but not a problem.

“Older African American actors are normally required for Mr. Wilson’s plays, and student talent would be ill-advised if the students were not well-trained,” he said. “The acting students here at the University of Illinois, in my opinion, are among the best in the nation.”

“Those in the cast seem to be having a blast, and are growing as actors throughout the process — this can be clearly seen in their performances,” Dixon added.

Aunt Ester is in several of the other plays in the cycle. Will she have a home to return to at Krannert?

Gabriel Solis, head of Illinois Theatre, said there is no plan to present the whole cycle: “We generally look to have a wide array of plays on our season, so as to offer various things to the C-U audience.”

Reporter

Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).