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Photo by Brad Cansler / E'tienne Easley, Shelia Wofford and Kim Reynolds, from left, star in the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's "Gem of the Ocean."

With a central character who claims to be 285 years old and a storyline that follows a journey to find a city in the center of the Atlantic Ocean, mysticism and realism intersect in the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's upcoming production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."

"Gem of the Ocean" will open Friday, Jan. 24, and continue through Sunday, Feb. 9 in the CTC's Circle Theatre.

This play is chronologically the first work in Wilson's celebrated 10-play American Century Cycle. Each play captures the essence of the African-American experience during a decade of the 20th century. Chattanooga Theatre Centre has committed to producing the full cycle over the next 10 years, and began with last season's "Fences."

Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, "Gem of the Ocean" follows characters among the first generation of African-Americans to emerge after the end of the Civil War and their history of enslavement.

If you go

* What: “Gem of the Ocean”

* Where: Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St.

* When: 8 p.m. Jan. 24-25, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, Feb. 7-8; 7 p.m. Jan. 20 and Feb. 6; 2:30 p.m. Jan. 26, Feb. 2 and 9

* Admission: $23 to $30

* For more information: 423-267-8534

In the drama, waves of former slaves and descendants venture north and find themselves at Aunt Ester's home in Pittsburgh's Hill District. The fiery matriarch, who claims to be 285 years old, is known far and wide for cleansing souls and providing sanctuary to the troubled and lost.

Arriving on her doorstep is Citizen Barlow, a young drifter racked with guilt over his past crimes and desperate for redemption. Perhaps in his imagination or perhaps through mystical transportation, she sends him on a spiritual voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, following the route taken by the slave ships, to the City of Bones.

This mythical story is set against the real backdrop of a turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh where tension boils and its population grows impatient with poor working and housing conditions.

"Gem of the Ocean" is directed by Sadiqua Iman, the first black woman to direct a show at the CTC in its 96-year history. She is the daughter of Anthony and Gwyndolyn Crutcher and a 2003 graduate of Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts.

Iman is presently a graduate student at Seattle University, so she has temporarily returned to Chattanooga in order to take on this production. However, she laughs, the first rehearsal was held via Skype before she got here.

Iman says the Wilson play appealed to her because of the parallels she saw between the healer in the story and her own grandmother.

"I consider myself a healing artist, and this show is about a healer whom everybody in town comes to in order to get their soul clean. It reminded me a lot of my grandmother's home. She always had people coming through to eat dinner, friends of her grown children who would come by to talk to her or just to sit and be with her because she held that kind of energy," says the director.

She has found her biggest challenge to be "introducing the cast to this idea of spirituality that's not rooted in the church — like the reason they put two pennies on the eyes of someone who dies. That has been a big educational part of this show. I'm so happy that the cast has taken direction so well," she says.

The cast includes Gabriel Bailey, E'tienne Easley, Keath Jackson Jr., Kim Reynolds, Tommy White and Sheila Wofford.

For tickets, call 423-267-8534 or find them online at http://theatrecentre.com/.

 

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