SMTD's 'Violet' to explore identity and race

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 6:07pm

The Department of Musical Theatre’s studio production of “Violet” opens this Thursday at the Arthur Miller Theater. Recently nominated for four revival Tony Awards in 2014, “Violet” follows the story of a young girl, the eponymous Violet, as she travels by bus from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Along the way, Violet befriends the other bus passengers and begins to learn more about herself.

The musical is an adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim.” It features many different styles of music like Gospel and rock.

Violet suffers from a scar she received in a childhood accident. The scar is not depicted on stage, however, and the audience is left to imagine it based on the reactions of other people. The play focuses on Violet’s discomfort with her physical appearance and struggle to overcome her inner fears.

“Everyone has struggled with self-doubt,” said SMTD senior Natalie Duncan, who also plays Violet, in an interview with The Daily. In this instance, it is about “America and the world’s pressure on women. Your worth is not in how men see you. I can say that I struggle with that” — this is “something that I want to fight for everyday of my life.”

“We can all look at ourselves and know that at some level we have a scar,” said director Mark Madama, Associate Professor of Musical Theatre. “She considered herself not to be pretty because she has a scar ...we don’t ever know how big that scar is.”

In addition to self-worth, the play also explores race as Violet begins to fall in love with Flick, a Black soldier also riding the bus played by SMTD junior Justin Showell. Throughout the play, Violet learns to move past Flick’s race and understand him on a personal level. Set in 1964, this radical change belies Violet’s transition to understanding herself.

“Racial issues have always been a prominent part of our society for as long as we’ve been America,” Madama said.

“Me being Black is not an affliction, it's not a disfigurement,” Showell said. “Flick sees Violet the way that the audience does the entire time ... by the end, Violet learns to see Flick in the same way.”

The play ultimately revolves around becoming comfortable with oneself, transcending one’s inner fears and reaching one’s full potential.

“We often, in ourselves, cannot see our full potential,” Showell said. “We often put shades and layers over ourselves and only do what we are perceived to be capable of.”

“Even though the show is set in 1964, so much of the themes are relevant today,” Duncan said. “It’s timeless in a way.”

“It’s about being able to accept yourself,” Madama said. “Being able to know yourself, being able to love yourself. It’s about finding where you fit into this world and not trying to be something you’re not.”

After being premiered in 1997, “Violet” recently underwent a critically acclaimed Broadway revival which featured big names such as Sutton Foster and Joshua Henry. With this popular run in mind, the cast have been working to find their own interpretation of the work.

“There’s never going to be another Violet that has these exact components,” Duncan said. “I am working on finding what about Violet I have in myself.”

“There’s a lot of elements that have to be told honestly,” Madama said. “It becomes about you because you try to figure out what’s going on in the story. It’s coming out of your way of looking at the world.”

There are a “plethora of different styles that still manage to be consistent,” Showell said. It “gives each of the characters their own voice.”

Though it takes place more than 50 years ago, “Violet” is a topical exploration of the many things that bring us together as humans, and the means by which we can transcend the few things that keep us apart. It’s about checking your preconceived notions and learning to understand one another on an emotional level.

“It gives everybody an opportunity to see themselves differently,” Showell said. “If you are able to take on some of the encouragement that others see in you, what aren’t you capable of?”