South Bend Civic Theatre embarks on ambitious 10-year August Wilson Project

Can the South Bend Civic Theatre make August Wilson a household name by 2030?

It’s one of the goals of the Civic’s ambitious 10-year August Wilson Project, which kicked off in February 2020 with Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.”

Next up: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” set to premiere in February 2021.

The South Bend Civic Theatre is set to become one of few theaters across the country to produce Wilson’s full American Century Cycle, a series of ten plays that charts the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century.

“August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is as close to Shakespeare in scope and scale as the American theater community has created,” said Aaron Nichols, executive director of the South Bend Civic Theatre. “And it’s telling the story of the African American community, which makes it all the more attractive when the South Bend Civic Theatre is looking to create visibility, create opportunity and reflect the vibrant diversity of South Bend.”

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Nichols was interested in bringing Wilson’s work to South Bend because he believes the South Bend community will feel a resonance with the post-manufacturing “Rust Belt” stories of Pittsburgh, where the series is almost entirely based.

Part of the South Bend Civic Theatre’s pledge is to be “a beacon to guide all toward hope, unity, and understanding.” Nichols hopes Wilson’s work will serve as that beacon.

“We understand that creating spaces for under-represented communities is incredibly important for a civic theater,” Nichols said. “We want our own theater to reflect South Bend in a meaningful way. And not just parts of South Bend — all of South Bend.”

For years, the South Bend Civic Theatre has produced shows for various communities. A show for the African American community, one for people with disabilities, another for the Latinx community.

“These were very single-production partnerships,” Nichols said. “That doesn’t allow for relationships to grow. It doesn’t allow for momentum to build.”

Nichols wanted to be sure the productions that made up the August Wilson Project were authentic — and that meant recruiting directors and other artists of color.

So, he was thrilled to meet Aaron Mays during a pre-show discussion at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where Mays was serving as an assistant director in the Pulitzer-winning “Sweat” last year.

Nichols invited Mays to South Bend for a tour of the theater, and Mays immediately knew it was something he wanted to be a part of.

“His passion, his dedication and his candor for authentic connection through theater and the power of storytelling, that spoke to me and who I am as an artist,” Mays said.

As a director, Mays is drawn to stories of the African diaspora and the narratives of marginalized voices. He could not turn down the opportunity to lead an August Wilson production.

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Aaron Mays directs a rehearsal on Wednesday evening. (Photo by Evan Cobb)

“When I read ‘Two Trains Running,’ I can see my uncles in some of those characters. When I watch ‘Radio Golf,’ I can see characters that resemble me and my own trajectory,” Mays said. “Wilson took on an epic task to capture the Black narrative within the U.S. It’s through his eyes and doesn’t include everything, sure, but it at least helped to give voice to black men and their everyday struggles. It makes them accessible for audiences in both the main stream and on main street.”

Mays said he feels honored to be the first director to kick off the South Bend Civic Theatre’s ambitious project, and he was thrilled to help the community ponder questions about liberty and the pursuit of happiness through “Gem of the Ocean.”

“This play underscores that freedom comes with its own perils for people who have yet to know freedom as given to them in the American context,” Mays said. “As with any of August’s plays, it connects the mundane with the mystical. No moment was left unturned.”