Future Waitstaff of America’s Violet, an exciting musical charged with rock and roll, soul and back-country twang with original songs by Jeanine Tesori, musical composer of Shrek the Musical, opens in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater this weekend. It will run from November 7 through 9.
“It’s really all over the top, and I’m all for it,”explained director Patrick Brady ’15.
The musical roller coaster, set in the deep South during the Civil Rights Movement, follows the tumultuous journey of Violet, a physically disfigured white woman who travels through the southern belt in search of emotional and physical healing. Violet leaves her hometown in North Carolina in an attempt to be healed of her physical ailment by a television evangelist. Seen as subtly reminiscent of Dorothy’s journey in the Wizard of Oz, Violet encounters numerous interesting figures who inform her quest that eventually culminates in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Violet was originally written in 1994 by Brian Crawley and composed by Jeanine Tesori, but was first performed three years later. In the subsequent years, numerous reviewers listed the musical as one of the best off-Broadway productions of the 1990’s. The play also won the 1997 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best musical.
According to Brady, this is a musical that he has wanted to direct since he became acquainted with the show in high school. After arriving at Vassar, Brady eventually proposed the play to the Future Waitstaff of America. The play with two full acts offers a lot to the audience—so much that, in addition to the six actors casted to play the main roles, the option arose for Brady to cast an ensemble for a gospel musical number, as well as a host of other secondary parts. In the end, Brady decided to stick with only six actors in order to challenge the actors’ performances and to make the show more spectacular.
“I’m really lucky to have the actors that I have. Some of them play about five different characters. They’ve been wonderful in their versatility and flexibility,” Brady shared.
Multiple acting roles is not the only element of the show that the cast is juggling. Situated within an American southern locale and with the Civil Rights Movement embedded at the play’s center, discussions of race and identity were pertinent to challenge the actors’ interpretations about the function of the play in a post-millenial world.
“There are roles that specifically called for African-American actors, which sparked the question of how to honestly deal with race in the casting process,” the director explained. “Musical theater is often written for and produced by white people, and so I was thankful that it brought up this whole other conversation of inclusivity in the musical theater scene at Vassar.”
In addition to thinking through these issues in casting, the production team also engaged in dialogue with the African American/Black Latino, Asian/Asian American, Native American (ALANA) Center on how to deal with some of the more racially charged scenes.
“We’ve really been working together as a group to talk about how we’re dealing with race as a cast. There have been some uncomfortable moments, but I think it is important to be sensitive about these issues and talk through it,” said Cheikh Athj ’16. Athj plays Flick, the African-American soldier in the play with whom Violet becomes romantically involved. Violet’s facial deformity and Flick’s identity as an African-American unite them and speak to the standards of physical beauty and otherness that run parallel to the play.
Further complicating the central tropes, the play also addresses familial loss. Harboring grief from the traumatic incident that permanently scarred her face, Violet interacts with her father’s ghost. As a small girl, Violet’s father was chopping wood when the blade came loose and sliced open her face, leaving her with both a physical and emotional scar.
From this moment on, Violet travels with the scar, believing that it has crippled her identity. The transformative work of the play comes to the forefront with Violet’s critical reckoning of her identity, as well as her relationship with her family. “I think the most beautiful moment is the reconciliation with her father in Act 2. It’s a beautiful moment about forgiving and moving on,” explained Brady.
This final moment of acceptance and reconciliation with one’s physical appearance hearkens directly back to the questions of race that the play deeply confronts. The playwright manages to link physical deformity to America’s perceptions of skin color, which although set in 1964, persists as a topical point of serious discussion in modern society.
“In working with this story, we’ve definitely grappled with the notion of racism existing less historically than we tend to think. We had to throw away the idea that we’re dealing with something in the past that no longer exists in the present,” Brady said. “I thought about how I could show something that’s not only a period piece.”
Still, Brady asserted that the Civil Rights Movement and family drama aside, Violet is a musical with substantial energy. The heavy content of the show does not dilute the dramatic intensity and excitement that the play has been lauded for.
“From a theatrical standpoint, it’s really very, very exciting,” said Brady.