"August was an incredibly powerful and brilliant poet, storyteller, playwright, activist, and human being. Whenever I would see him, I always got chills down my spine like I was seeing an ancient ancestor," Bond said.
Wilson's Century Cycle is made up of 10 plays that explore the experiences of African American people in the United States throughout the 20th century, with each play set in a different decade. He wrote the cycle over several decades, with the first play, "Jitney," debuting in 1982 and the final play, "Radio Golf," premiering in 2005. Wilson died in 2005.
Some of the best known plays in the cycle include "Fences," which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony for best play, "The Piano Lesson," which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
It's sometimes also called the Pittsburgh Cycle because each play is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — with some characters or relatives of those characters in common.
"Gem of the Ocean" is set in 1904 and focuses on the first decade of the 20th century, but it was the penultimate play that Wilson wrote in the series. It debuted in 2003.
"The last play TheatreWorks did by August Wilson was 'Radio Golf,' which is the last play in the cycle and the last play he wrote in the cycle," Bond said. "Interestingly enough, characters from 'Gem of the Ocean,' their offspring, 90 years later, are the characters in 'Radio Golf.' And the whole dilemma in 'Radio Golf' is about what to do with Aunt Ester's house, which is where the play takes place in Gem of the Ocean. So they're definitely bookends to the entire cycle and those characters are literally birthed in 'Gem of the Ocean' and appear in 'Radio Golf.'"
Bond took the helm at TheatreWorks in 2020, taking over from founder Robert Kelley. He stepped into the role of artistic director just as the pandemic took hold, which changed the past couple seasons and temporarily shifted some of the company's shows online or delayed their production.
The Palo Alto Weekly spoke with Bond about the show and his friendship with Wilson. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Palo Alto Weekly: Why did you choose "Gem of the Ocean" for TheatreWorks' 51st season?
Tim Bond: Well, it's one of my favorite plays of all time. It's also a great American play; it's a play that speaks to the times. Actually it was one of the changes I made for this current season after the George Floyd murder, the response in the country and the world to awakening more around the issues of the racial divisions that are part of the history of this country and part of our continued challenges as a nation. I wanted to pick a piece that I felt was going to be healing, that was going to, from a Black perspective, look at police violence towards Black bodies ... And I could not think of a more apt play than "Gem of the Ocean" to begin that healing. There's an actual spiritual healer in the play, a 285-year-old character, Aunt Ester, who is the repository of history and culture for the Black community in Pittsburgh in 1904. She helps wash the soul of a character that's dealing with some things from his past that he's trying to work through to become whole. And the whole idea of what is the worth of someone who's Black in America. What does freedom mean? How do we become whole people in a society that has denied us full opportunity and rights are still very relevant, important issues that this play deals with and it does it in a loving and community-oriented and ultimately hopeful way.
Palo Alto Weekly: Do you have plans to stage more plays from the cycle at TheatreWorks?
Bond: Absolutely. I love August's work. I committed to him personally that I was planning to complete his cycle of plays. I've done seven of the 10 plays in the American Century Cycle and my plan over the next five to seven years is to complete all three of those plays somewhere, somehow. It's very mysterious how and when these plays come into my life. And so I just leave my arms and heart open for possibility regarding finishing August's cycle someday. I'd be privileged to be able to do so. I think TheatreWorks has done five of his plays, so we still have more to explore in the cycle. This is sort of my flag in the sand to say this is one of the playwrights and journeys that I would like to take our audience on during my time here.
Palo Alto Weekly: About your friendship with August Wilson — how did you get to know him and what was he like?
Bond: I first got to know him back in the '90s at the National Black Theatre Festival that happens in North Carolina ... we're the only two people in this very big room with all these amazing books, dealing with African American history and literature and poetry. I looked over my shoulder and then I realized, "Wait a minute, that's August Wilson." Eventually we ended up side by side and we just started chatting about the different books that we were looking through. Then met him again at the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Festival. I had gotten a special grant to go and observe him working on "Seven Guitars." ... And I ran into him a few times during that period and then watched him rehearse "Two Trains Running" at the Seattle Rep. ... and then I spent time with him at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He would come because I was working with his wife, Constanza Romero, quite a bit as she was doing costume design for me.
I remember a couple times being outside and him just calling me over, 'Hey Tim, you got a minute?' and whatever I'm doing, I'd drop all my work and I'd say "Oh yeah, I've got time." An hour and a half later, he would have told me the entire story of "Gem of the Ocean" and talked me through the characters and the time period. But it was all as if it was something he had experienced, like a trip he had been on ... I would kind of come back into my body, as if he had taken me on this amazing journey through 1904 in Pittsburgh. It would just come pouring out of him, verbatim, the monologues, stories and characters and events. And so I was privileged for the last three plays he wrote in the cycle, "Gem of the Ocean," "King Hedley II" and "Radio Golf," that he shared each of those pieces with me in that way.
I miss him every day. I hear his voice in my head when I'm reading the plays and when I'm working on them.
"Gem of the Ocean" runs April 9 through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit theatreworks.org.
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