What this area needs is a fine playwright, a talented director, a skillful actor and a risk-taking producer. What this area needs — in fact, what this area has — is Bob Devin Jones.
I sat down with Jones in the second floor rehearsal space at American Stage, and we discussed Gem of the Ocean, the play by August Wilson that he was in the process of staging.
Jones is no stranger to Wilson's work: He directed The Piano Lesson and Fences in Memphis, and The Piano Lesson again in Sacramento, where he also acted in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. But Gem doesn't much resemble those other plays: It's set in 1904, and is about troubled Citizen Barlow, who comes to Pittsburgh to have his soul "washed" by 285-year-old Aunt Ester. To accomplish this laundering, Aunt Ester takes the man on a spiritual voyage ending at the "City of Bones," which Jones calls "the metaphorical, real, imagined, created space of August Wilson between the mother country, the middle passage, and the Caribbean."
And there's something else about Gem that distinguishes it from other Wilson plays: Being set so near the end of the Civil War, it features older characters who actually remember being slaves. Yes, familiar Wilson themes like "finding your song" play a part in the drama, but a character in Gem can say, "Nothing is worse than slavery. I should know; I was there." Life may be hard — it usually is in Wilson's work —- but at least on one level, life is better than it was.
And the arts life in the Bay area has been considerably better since Jones arrived. His [email protected] has brought visual arts, music and theater to St. Petersburg; his writing has been featured by American Stage and the LiveArts Peninsula Foundation; and now he's directing what appears to be the first professional production of an August Wilson play in the Bay area. How did an artist of his caliber decide to settle in our community? It was luck — or fate. Jones was born in Los Angeles 53 years ago. He grew up in Southern California, studied acting at Loyola Marymount University, did graduate work at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He acted and directed from coast to coast, and then in 1991 started writing. His play Uncle Bends: a home-cooked Negro narrative was produced at the Sacramento Theatre Company and was later a critical success here at American Stage. Meanwhile, Jones was living all over the country. "My home base [was always] Los Angeles," he says, but "being peripatetic" he spent eight months with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashmont and two years living in Seattle. ("It was great when I moved there, great when I moved away."). Jones came to St. Petersburg when Lisa Powers, then artistic director of American Stage, asked him to direct Strindberg's Miss Julie, which he cast with African-American actors and set in the Harlem Renaissance. Then, a crucial encounter: "On the second day I was here, Lisa Powers took me to breakfast. ... and I met my partner Jim." His partner followed him back to Los Angeles at first, but after an interregnum at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., Jones returned to St. Petersburg — and has stayed ever since.
He thinks that his 10 years in St. Petersburg have been his "most fertile decade." Among his accomplishments: the direction of From the Mississippi Delta, the writing of Manhattan Casino (produced at The Coliseum by LiveArts), and his appearance in Uncle Bends. And then, of course, he founded The [email protected], the arts space that has given hungry Bay area arts lovers everything from jazz and photography to theater and film. Jones says he first imagined such a space in the spring of 2004. Things moved quickly after that: The groundbreaking on First Avenue S. took place in June, and the Studio opened on Dec. 31, 2004 with a performance by The Hallelujah Singers from South Carolina.
Jones says the space's mission is "to be the creative community gathering place where the answer is always 'yes,' and the community in all its iterations is invited and encouraged to come in." He hastens to add that many of the offerings found at Studio begin as suggestions from outsiders. "We like theater, we like dance, movies, lectures," he says. "We're going to be doing a big architecture series, so the endeavor of human beings is our business." Jones is [email protected]'s artistic director, a title he shares with Dave Ellis, "and we both sift through things and jointly decide on how we're proceeding forward." Already scheduled for this fall are a production of Hamlet (directed by Jones and featuring the music of U2) and an art exhibition titled A Series of Shifting Landscapes. The 2007-2008 Writers Series will feature Ray Arsenault, John Wilson and Peter Meinke, among others (full disclosure: I was a featured writer last April).
The Studio is financed through memberships and contributions, and tries to keep its expenses low. "We have a pretty wide wingspan," Jones says, "but we fly way low to the ground." A few staff members, Jones among them, receive a modest salary for their work.
I ask Jones how he felt about leaving vibrant Los Angeles and settling in sleepy St. Pete. "It was sleepy when I got here," he says. "It is waking up. There's a lot to do here — much, much, much more to do here than when I first arrived. ... I've seen the arts transformed in a decade. That's extraordinary, and the level of activity, the sophistication has been remarkable, and artists have chosen to live here."
Of course, he is one of those artists, and his effect on Bay area culture has been considerable. Give us a few more writer/director/actor/impresarios like Jones, and there's no limit to what's possible in Bay area arts.
Because, finally, he's a visionary. "We're bursting at the seams," he says about [email protected] "The last several shows we've done, you know, turn-away crowds." In other words, someone named Jones saw an opportunity in St. Pete that no one else seemed to notice. And he created a new reality. And the community responded.
That's just the sort of leadership the Bay area arts scene needs.