James V Thomas Receives NBTF Award in Scenic Design
From Jennifer Gardner
“Sometimes you’re lucky and you don’t even know it.” -- August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean
This quote from playwright August Wilson reminds us to acknowledge the ways in which the universe provides for us without our even noticing. I share it tonight because it is from Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean. As many of you know August Wilson penned an American Decalogue--10 plays about the African American experience, each one set in a decade of the 20th century. Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, is the first of these, although it was the ninth play Wilson added to his American Cycle. It is also one of several plays for which James V Thomas created an award-winning scenic design.
In Wilson’s worldview, time is circular, and as we honor James V Thomas tonight I invite us to be mindful of the past, present, and future in all that we do. I see this in James’ work. He was honored this year with Achievements in Scenic Design by the National Black Theater Festival for his 39-year history with the Ensemble Theatre. He is one of only a few designers that has designed all ten of Wilson’s American cycle. He is a design luminary in Houston, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse where he has produced scenic designs for ten world premieres.
As a theatre scholar, I cannot help but trace a bit of history to demonstrate first, how time is circular and second, acknowledge how lucky we are. When I arrived at graduate school in Pittsburgh, PA I did not know how lucky I was. I held a teaching fellowship with Kuntu Repertory Theatre, the nation’s oldest African American theatre company. I served there with Eileen J. Morris, the Ensemble Theatre’s Artist Director. Kuntu Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Vernell A. Lillie, held the legacy of the Black Horizon Theatre- a company co-founded by August Wilson and Rob Penny--and was the precedent for the New Horizon Theater which continues its work in Pittsburgh to produce new works from African American points of view.
The New Horizon Theater is one among many theatre companies for which James V Thomas served as the resident scenic designer. Imagine my surprise upon landing here, at HCC, and finding this connection to James. This is how we are lucky and we do not even know it. We are lucky that every student that encounters James is connected to this rich legacy of artists who came before them and who are carried by him through his deep and complex work. We are lucky that an artist of his caliber serves with us in supporting the next generation of our craft. We are lucky that he manages all of his professional opportunities, and there are many, around our class and production schedule and often uses them to extend opportunities for our students. We are lucky that the national theatre community sees in James what we experience every day: a brilliant artist and designer committed to service, mentorship, and education. James, it is an honor to serve with you here at HCC in a craft that cannot be bound by time, geography, and administrative limitations.
You are a gem, and we will always be grateful that you choose to shine here.
16th NBTF wraps on a high note
Aug 3, 2019