TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Artistic Director Tim Bond has some unique insights into "Gem of the Ocean," the play that marks his directorial debut for the company. He knows the play well, having previously directed a production for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and has both directed and taught other shows from the cycle of 10 plays by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson, of which "Gem of the Ocean" is a part.
But he also knew Wilson as a friend.
"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 American 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.
The majority of the plays are set in the Hill District, a historically Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with some characters or relatives of those characters in common. In fact, in the ties between characters, the plays often have a touch of the supernatural.
"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.
Central to the play is the character of Aunt Ester, a healer and the community's spiritual adviser, who counts herself as nearly 300 years old. Among the people drawn to her home is Citizen Barlow, a young man troubled by his past. Aunt Ester takes Citizen on a supernatural journey on a slave ship to a mythical city, where he learns about his ancestors.
Meanwhile, the death of a Black worker at the local steel mill who had been falsely accused of a crime has led the mill's Black workers to go on strike, which the police meet with violence, sweeping up several characters in Aunt Ester's orbit.
"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 Weekly spoke with Bond about the show and his friendship with Wilson. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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 also about healing — about how we heal as a community, how we heal as a nation around these issues. 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: "Gem of the Ocean'' covers the first decade of the 20th century, but it was the second-to-last play written in the cycle. How do the other plays that were written earlier inform it?
Bond: I directed it 16 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was associate artistic director there and it was very resonant and powerful to do then. I think it's even more resonant and powerful now in some ways because of the raising consciousness around the racial reckoning in America right now and the 1619 Project. There's so much about the whole cycle that, in a way, is birthed in how he's written "Gem of the Ocean" — there are breadcrumbs laid out in this play that lead to "Seven Guitars," that lead to "Two Trains Running," that lead to "Fences," that lead to "The Piano Lesson," so I can see where they are because I know those plays. And because he wrote it second to last, he had those other plays already in his lexicon, so it's really exciting to go back to this play at this point. Through the journey I've been on already with his other works, I understand it and catch the resonance inside of it in ways I didn't entirely 16 years ago. So I think that you can see how this play births the entire cycle and how the character of Aunt Ester really sets the cycle in motion.
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, and we both walked out of a session that was going on in the main area. I was looking at an area where they were selling books and African clothing. I'm walking around and I see there's someone else on the opposite side from me. He's looking around the same way. And 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 I 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." I got to hear August read the play himself and then I watched them for the next week in rehearsals with it. And I ran into him a few times during that period and then watched him rehearse "Two Trains Running" at the Seattle Rep. I watched that process 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.
August would come up and see shows at the festival. 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 and then he came back and said 'This was what it was like, this was what I saw, this is what happened," and he would just tell it to me. And I felt like I had gone on this whole journey. 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.
Palo Alto Weekly: The character Aunt Ester is one of the throughlines in the cycle. And it's an interesting parallel that Greta Oglesby originated the role and then also was in your production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and now at TheatreWorks. What does it bring to a production when you have an actor who's so familiar with a major role like that?
Bond: Greta is an amazing actress and human being, and she brings such generosity to the rest of our cast. She really is the leader of this production and the kind of spiritual center of it. She brings a confidence, a spiritual sweep of energy, a sense of humor to the rhythms she knows in the play. It's sort of like she's like a conductor in her own way, just by being who she is, how she speaks to these lines. It's fantastic to have Greta here, right now. I could not, would not, have done the show without her. …
I think people are going to be knocked out with what she brings to the role, and where she's come to in the role through these years, as well, because we're not the same people we were 16 years ago. … We have a wonderful cast. It's been a great team.
Palo Alto Weekly: "Gem of the Ocean" will be your directorial debut with TheatreWorks. How does it feel to kick off with a show that has such personal connections?
Bond: Incredibly gratifying. Being an artist is to make oneself as vulnerable as you can to the work and to lay bare where your heart and spirit is. To have a piece that is so meaningful for me, to be able to share that with my audience, finally, after two years of waiting, it feels very gratifying. It's why I'm an artist is to tell these sorts of stories. It has realism and magic realism in it. It has music. It has love and community and family and talks about freedom. It is a healing project and I'm an artist because I believe in the power of art to be healing and to connect us. It just feels fantastic to be working on this piece right now, with everything that's going on in our country and the world. The piece speaks to me and I think it will speak to our audience about the human condition, about the indomitability of the human spirit under difficult circumstances, and to be hopeful about how we can come through that for the next generation — to carry on the important work of trying to live out what this country says it wants to be, which is where everyone is equal and supported.
"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.