.TheatreWork’s Gem of the Ocean

Acclaimed playwright August Wilson’s influence lives on in new production

TheatreWorks director Tim Bond has been wondering something recently: how those of us “in the Bay Area can become more embracing and more inclusive.” It’s a challenge, he thinks, that can only be met through the transformative power of art.

“Art is a connector and creates a platform for voices that haven’t always been heard,” says Bond ahead of TheatreWorks’ new production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. “It welcomes people from all backgrounds into the same space. When you leave, you’re not the same person you were two hours ago.”

Bond would know—as an internationally renowned director, he’s had decades of experience putting on award-winning productions. In February of 2020, he became artistic director at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. However, due to COVID, audiences will only now finally have the opportunity to see his first production with the company.

For Bond, this performance will be deeply personal. He was friends with August Wilson, the critically acclaimed playwright who penned Gem of the Ocean. Recently, film adaptations of Wilson’s plays Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom won Academy Awards, both of which (along with Gem) form Wilson’s magnum opus: The American Century Cycle, a series of ten plays, each a representation of the Black experience in America through the 20th century.

Bond met Wilson in the ’90s, when they both attended a Black theater festival in North Carolina. Connecting over books about the Black experience in America, the pair soon became professional collaborators. After years of friendship, when Wilson had finally finished his ten-play cycle—the culmination of his life’s work—Bond says he made his friend a promise.

“I looked him in the eyes and I said, ‘August, you did it. I’m going to try to climb that mountain too and try to direct all the plays in your cycle.’ A week later, I found out that he was terminally ill.”

Now, fulfilling his promise has become one of Bond’s own life goals. “It’s something that I have a mission to complete,” he says.

The director has three more plays left in his mission, though Gem is not one of them (he first directed the play 16 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Instead, he felt compelled to stage it for TheatreWorks because of recent events.

“It really happened for me the day after the George Floyd murder,” he recounts, adding he was “so personally struck with the pain of that incident, and then watching the response nationally to it.”

As he saw history unfolding before him, the director wondered: “What can I do as an artist?” He wanted to find a piece that spoke to a nation divided and torn “from an issue that has yet to be resolved in this country—the original sin in America of slavery, and the way Black bodies continue to be treated in unequal [and] brutal ways.”

For Bond, staging Gem of the Ocean was one clear answer to the question. “It is a piece that speaks for me the most powerfully. [It] is very much about creating community and bringing us together at a time when the country is so very divided around these issues and needs healing,” he says.

Bond adds that he put together this performance with the greater Bay Area community in mind. To complete the legacy connection to Wilson, this staging will feature Greta Oglesby in the key role of Aunt Ester—not only one of the most important parts in the play, but a part for which Wilson actually wrote with Oglesby in mind.

But just because the play touches on some heavy themes doesn’t make it a dour experience. Instead, Bond promises “humor, community and connection.

“[The play] is a journey that is going to really give people a greater sense of connection to what’s going on and being talked about nationally, and will give them hope,” he says. “And boy, coming out of COVID, the rancor of partisan division that’s happening and the racial reckoning that the country’s dealing with, this is a piece that is galvanizing artistically.”

It’s not just “an uplifting journey,” he adds, but a “really fun adventure, and an extraordinary ride.”

Gem of the Ocean

Opens Wed, 8pm, $25

Center for the Performing Arts, Mountain View

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