On February 21st, 2020, the South Bend Civic Theater began its ambitious project to produce one show a year from August Wilson’s century cycle. That’s 10 shows set in 10 different decades of the 20th century, produced in 10 years. Beginning with Gem of the Ocean.
But for the theater, just producing these shows isn’t enough, they decided to take the show on the road, set and all. With the help of some local teachers (Randy Ebright, Amanda Zablocki, and Megan Twietmeyer at Adams) they brought the magic of theater to the schools. But why high schools? For director Aaron Mays, it’s all about education.
“American history is riddled with tragedies and inequities, and the play provides a pseudo-history lesson as a way to reconcile the past,” Mays said. He felt it was important for students, especially students of color, to experience this journey into their heritage. “I want the students to experience the need to be redeemed, the power of community, the discovery of one’s identity, and the spirit of a liberated people.”
The show highlights the difficulty of African American life post Civil War. “It captures the lives of the first generation of freed people in which the horrors of slavery are not far in their rearview, especially for the older characters,” Mays said. Wilson’s shows are all about the struggle for equality and the importance of ancestry. One character, Aunt Ester, is the personification of ancestry. During a Q’ and A’ session with the actors, Clara Ross (the actor portraying Aunt Ester) said her role in the show is to give Citizen Barlow, the show’s protagonist, “the answers to his yesterday.”
The chance to direct this show was a big one for Mays. “Most black directors view the opportunity to direct an August Wilson play as a rite of passage–and not everyone gets that chance.”
It’s easy to understand why, too. Many people consider Wilson to be America’s modern-day Shakespeare. “Gem of the Ocean is a freedom song for those of the African diaspora. It’s raw testimonies of bare-bone humanity from common black folks, who, in spite of their pain, have stitched America together.”
Why bring theater to students? It’s possible Aunt Ester said it best, “That’s our job, to tell everybody’s story.” Theater is more than a story, it’s somebody’s story. It’s many people’s stories. Students are here to learn; to learn about more than just what the people did, but who the people are. That is why the Civic brings theater to the students.
If all goes according to plan, the theater will be back next year to perform the next show in the cycle, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. A special thanks to the Civic Theater staff for presenting the students at John Adams High School with this gift of live theatre.
“You are on an adventure, Mr. Citizen. I bet you didn’t know that. It’s all an adventure. You signed up for it and didn’t even know it.”
-Aunt Ester, Gem of the Ocean
Missed the show? You have one more chance to see Gem of the Ocean. The final free public showing will be at 7 p.m. on March 5 at Clay High School.
If you are interested in learning more about The South Bend Civic Theater, you can find them at sbct.org.