Elijah Pierce was a barber, preacher and a folk artist of no small significance.

Elijah Pierce was a barber, preacher and a folk artist of no small significance.

What playwright Chiquita Mullins Lee wanted to capture about Pierce, the son of a former Mississippi slave who migrated north and settled in Columbus, though, was his "wholeness as a person."

When Contemporary American Theatre Company presents Lee's one-person play, Pierce to the Soul, it will represent five years of the Columbus playwright's pursuit of that wholeness.

The concept was suggested to Lee by then-CATCO artist director Geoffrey Nelson.

"I was interested in using the form to explore a local person who's part of the fabric of the community," Nelson, now in an emeritus position with the company, told ThisWeek, "to take a look at who we are and where we've come from."

Lee said her research included visiting the Columbus Museum of Art's collection of Pierce's wood carvings, reading interviews he'd given and visiting with people who knew or at least knew of Pierce, who died in 1984.

To capture this sense of wholeness, Lee united a variety of styles in Pierce to the Soul, including direct interaction with the audience. Lee set the play as though the audience members are customers in Pierce's barbershop, allowing for direct interaction as well as speech-making and story-telling, often in the voice of characters in those stories.

In fact, it was Alan Bomar Jones' choice to use character voices from Pierce's stories that ultimately clinched him the part. Jones and 203 other actors had been doing readings for Lee and Nelson throughout the
development of the play.

"I just said I believe the audience will accept me moving in and out of character and the voices I use to make them come to life," Jones said.

He added that the script's combination of monologue, storytelling and audience interaction is "challenging in a different way. It's unpredictable, and I always have to find a way back to the script."

"I hope people will feel a very strong personal connection to Elijah Pierce, to think of him as a person they would like to sit down and have a conversation with," Lee said.