Goodman Theatre's 'Gem of the Ocean' chronicles 20th century African American experience

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chuck Smith is a Bronzeville baby who grew up in the Ida B. Wells projects.

His entire life's passion is the stage and his hometown theater family.

"I'm a bit biased. I've been working with Chicago actors all my career, and I don't think you can beat a Chicago actor," Smith said.

That includes the stellar cast of Smith's current production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."

"It's teaming with good Black history because it tells the story of coming over from Africa, living in slavery," Smith said. "You're talking about individuals who experienced slavery."

Smith said he's had a long, good working relationship with Wilson.

"We worked together in 1997, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Smith said. "He came in at the first preview and stuck with me for all 10 of our previews."

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Smith said his relationship with the Goodman Theatre has been important in terms of bringing a diversity of plays.

"They hadn't had anybody of color ever on the artistic staff and naturally, I brought the South Side with me," Smith said.

The production is about living Black history right on the stage.

"We're talking about things, hot button issues that we're dealing with right now," Smith said. "One of the first lines in the play is, 'The people ain't going back to work.' Hey, here we are."

Smith said there's an overall message in the piece.

"I think the main one is, 'You live right, you die right,'" Smith said. "It's never done 'til it's done. As you think about this, Black History Month, we all have to remember that the struggle continues and that we just have to stay with it. We can't give up. Here we are, we're moving on!"

"Gem of the Ocean" plays at the Goodman through Feb. 27.
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