The fall production of “Violet” will open this weekend for homecoming and set the stage for meaningful conversations on heavy topics.
The story follows a young woman, Violet, who suffers from a horrible disfigurement because of an accident during her childhood.
With a heart full of hope, she leaves her small hometown in North Carolina to find healing from a televangelist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As she travels through the deep south, she encounters two soldiers, Monty, a white paratrooper, and Flick, a black sergeant.
By the conclusion of her journey, Violet learns the meanings of beauty, love and courage in ways she was not expecting.
The show also contains a rotating ensemble cast that will accompany Violet, who is played by junior Juli Biagi, at each of the various stops as she travels by bus.
Biagi will be joined by sophomore Noah Robinson as Flick and junior Connor Thompson as Monty. The three musical theatre majors have developed chemistry that they convey through their performances.
“My favorite experience with the show has been working with my two co-leads,” says Thompson. “They’re very good friends of mine, and we have a lot of time on stage.”
While the cast has found comfort in working with each other, the play still contains difficult material for the actors to express.
“Violet is this really strong really, really tough person. She’s very real and very raw,” says Biagi. “I was worried that it might be too much emotionally to handle every night, but it’s been pleasantly surprising to play her, because I love her personality and ability to persevere.”
Doris Betts wrote the original short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” in 1973 to tell a story about beauty. Violet struggles seeing herself past her own physical disfigurement, but learns to see herself and others for who they truly are, no matter their scars, age or color of skin.
Those parallels are made by the romance between Flick and Violet, as Flick tries to convince Violet that her appearance does not define her.
“Because Flick is an African-American soldier, he can identify with being looked at as less than everybody else,” says Robinson.
The 1997 musical adaption, with music by the acclaimed Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Brian Crawley, emphasizes this message by further establishing itself in the middle of the civil rights movement, four months after the ratification of the Civil Right Act of 1964.
Violet is a significant selection for AU’s theatre program, not only for its contemporary nature, but also because of the way it presents serious issues.
The production contains adult themes and moments including charged racial slurs as it addresses issues of race and religion in a raw and honest light.
Director David Coolidge and conductor Dr. Fritz Robertson have presided over extensive dialogue between the cast and faculty over the use of offensive content such as the “N-word” and other profanities.
During this process, students have connected with each other and with the material, relating it back to their own personal experiences. The university aims to prepare young Christian artists for the entertainment industry, and Coolidge says that they have seen the cast grow spiritually as they have engaged with “Violet” and its themes.
Despite the potential reaction such content could draw from audiences, Coolidge hopes to use “Violet” as a catalyst for campus conversations about life on the edges of faith and artistry.
“We don’t choose challenging material for shock value, it’s carefully thought through and embarked upon with the very best of intentions,” says Coolidge.
Noah Robinson, who plays the black lead, wrote a personal letter to the administration in support of keeping the word in its context as a means to educate.
“‘Violet’ might bring up things that are rough to see, but it’s such a powerful show, and I think it’s one that needs to be told,” says Biagi. “Our cast is phenomenal. I’ve never been in a show, and I’ve never heard of a show, that’s quite like this one.”
“The theater often stands as a mirror for society. At times it reflects what we’d rather not see and other times offers a glimpse of what could be possible,” says Coolidge. “Our intention with ‘Violet’ is to provide an open door to begin the messy work of truly working through issues of race, faith and sexuality with honesty, empathy and openness.”
“Violet” premieres Saturday, Sept. 29 with a matinee at 2:30 p.m. in Byrum Hall. A talk-back session will be held after the premiere at 4:45 p.m. with patrons who wish to continue the dialogue over themes addressed as well as any others who may have missed the show but would like to participate.
Additional showtimes include evening performances at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 29 and Sunday, Sept. 30. The production will return the following weekend with shows on Friday, Oct. 5 and Saturday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. and will close on Sunday, Oct. 7 at 2:30 p.m.
AU Students, faculty and staff are provided two free tickets. Ticket prices vary from $5-$12.
Further information about Boze Lyric Theatre performances and bookings can be found by contacting the Byrum Hall box office at (765)-641-4140.