Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 60
Much has already been said of the passing of G. Valmont Thomas this past week at the age of just 58 — he has been lauded in Broadway World, The Seattle Stranger, and the Seattle Times, as well as in this paper, as a seasoned artist and key player in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's core group of long-serving professional actors.
With some 60 roles under his belt at OSF, as well as 14 years with the company, Mr. Thomas has made an indelible mark on his friends, colleagues and audiences. But what has been most moving about the impact that G. Val has had on the community has — in part — been the fact that he continued to stride the boards at the Thomas Theatre as Falstaff while quietly undergoing treatment for Stage 4 cancer.
When Thomas did bow out, to be replaced by an understudy, the reasons were known inside the festival, but had not been widely acknowledged to the general public. The display of exemplary professionalism that is represented by such dignified stoicism in the face of glaring personal struggle is, or at least should be, a bar for which any serious working artist should strive. How incredibly trivial appears the diva or dilettante, the pretender to the throne of creative discipline, when compared to a person with such a fierce commitment to his art.
It seems fitting that the 2018 season should be dedicated to Thomas, who has the distinction of having played Sir John Falstaff in all three of the plays in which that cornerstone character of the canon is featured: "Henry IV, Part 1," "Henry IV, Part II" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Thomas himself has held key roles in some of the most challenging of OSF's offerings, and had an enviable repertoire spanning many of the Bard's most important works. He was a key player in a number of works of August Wilson that had been mounted by OSF over the years. He was assistant director on OSF's 2011 production of “The African Company Presents Richard III,” which tells the story of a group of black actors in 1820s America who would hide their innate gifts during the day, working as household servants, but would come to the stage in the evenings to perform Shakespeare's seminal work about the Machiavellian rise of the hunchback king.
There are obvious parallels between the projects in which Thomas elected to be involved and the issues that face working actors of color in the American theater. Thomas's reliable commitment to his responsibilities as an actor from a traditionally underrepresented minority were perhaps less obvious, but in reading and hearing many of the comments within the Ashland community in the few days following his passing, it is clear that he was a trailblazer in that sphere — an arbiter for change, and change for the better.
In an era when art should be more reliably deployed as an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy and less often to decorate rooms, artists of Thomas's caliber are needed more than ever. He has represented the best of the reality of the struggle of the creative professional in an evermore challenging environment. His work in the region (where Oregon Shakespeare has been his home base, but his performances have been well received for decades on the Seattle theater circuit as well) was consistently strong, moral, and influential.
It's no surprise, then, that Thomas's character is marked by similar qualities — an influencer for younger artists, a reliable and stable influence in the companies with which he has worked, and an all-around delight for those patrons who have been lucky enough to see him at work.
The charisma and force of this exemplary performer will be missed, but we must stand on the shoulders of such quiet heroes in order to reach higher. Rest in peace, G. Val. We would not wish any better companion in the world but you.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.