What is beauty? Is it more than skin deep?
And what about courage? And love?
Those are the questions TheatreUSF is taking on with their spring production – an adaptation of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical “Violet.”
The musical opens on the University of South Florida Tampa campus tonight and runs through April 24th.
The title character, a young white girl, sets off from her North Carolina home in 1964 with hopes that a televangelist in Oklahoma can heal her. Violet has a scar across her face - the result of a tragic childhood accident involving her father.
However, in a testament to the power of acting, there’s no scar visible through make-up or prosthesis – the performers have to make the audience believe that it’s there.
"Other people in the ensemble react to it in seeing it," said senior Tess Carr, who plays Violet. "But I think a lot of it for me has been thinking about what it would be like to have a scar like that and remembering that that scar is there, and that this entire journey is really about that scar and about the fact that it’s ruled her entire life."
Setting off on a cross-country bus trip, Violet meets and interacts with a number of people who react to her disfigurement with horror. But she strikes up a more cordial - yet challenging - relationship with a pair of soldiers: a white corporal in his 20s named Monty (played by junior Cameron Kubly) and an African-American sergeant in his 30s, Grady "Flick" Fliggins.
Such relationships between races were highly unusual – and rarely accepted – in the play’s setting of the American South in the 60’s.
"In the present, the things that they say and do are considered ‘okay,’" said junior Will Lindsey, who plays Fliggins. "But back in his time period, it’s not really okay so I have to watch and I have to react a certain way to different kinds of situations that either him and Monte are in or him and Violet are in, so it’s a different kind of experience for me."
Before rehearsals even began, the play’s director, Assistant Professor of Theatre Douglas Hall, set about helping his students realize the era the musical is set in.
"On one hand, it’s difficult, but it’s also really exciting and it’s exciting for them to understand where we are now and where we were then and for them to get the gravity of that is, certainly as a teacher, gratifying," said Hall, who came to USF after more than a decade teaching and directing in New York City.
"To have to embody this world and to get a more visceral feeling for what that must have been like...it just makes it more tangible for them, so that’s something that’s really fun to explore," he added.
“Violet,” which was based on the Doris Betts' short story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim," was first performed off Broadway in 1997. A 2014 revival featuring music by Jeanine Tesori, composer of the acclaimed musical “Fun Home,” netted four Tony nominations.
"She’s a really important contemporary American musical theater composer and this was her first musical," Hall said. "It’s got sort of a bluegrassy score to echo where we are – we start in the hills of North Carolina, we go through Memphis, we go through Nashville, and the music kind of reflects the journey that Violet’s taking across the country."
As important as the story and the music is to a show, Hall said the wardrobe is just as important - even if some of the era's fashions were strange to the cast.
"It was funny when the guys went in for their fittings and were like ‘why am I wearing my pants up here?’ and I’m like ‘well, because that’s how they wore them,’ ‘Wow, that’s so weird.’" Hall said. "You know, for them, that was a really odd thing and I’d never really thought of it, but it’s true."
And even though “Violet” is set in the 1960’s, the message of going beyond the surface to find the person within is a timeless story that any generation can relate to.
"The political climate that we’re in now has sort of brought that back to the surface and I really think that it can speak to people today and remind us that we’re human beings," Hall said.
"'Violet' is definitely a walk that everyone takes," Lindsey added. "It’s not just about Violet trying to find beauty, it’s about her as a human being trying to find out where she belongs. So I feel like everyone can relate to that kind of story."