Show Time: College’s New Professional Theatre Company Debuts With Musical ‘Violet’
Davidson College photos by: Chris Record
As they say in show biz, it’s all about who you know.
But sometimes it’s the people you don’t know who can offer a perspective you haven’t thought of, a window you haven’t looked through, a voice you haven’t heard.
Bringing different voices together guides the new, professional Common Thread Theatre Collective at Davidson College. And its cast, crew and creators plan to entertain, engage and spark conversations about the roles we play in our own lives.
The theatre company, which includes students and professors from Davidson and North Carolina A&T State University, will debut its first show, Violet, on Friday, June 17. The award-winning Broadway musical chronicles a scarred young woman’s quest for healing. Violet will run on weekends through July 3 in the college’s Barber Theatre.
Next month, the company will produce the play Barbecue, a comedic take on how two dysfunctional families, one Black and one white, deal with an out-of-control sister. Barbecue runs from July 15-31.
Davidson’s Department of Theatre has long aspired to establish a professional company. Producer Karli Henderson explored the logistics of forming one that would feature high-quality shows with diverse casts and themes.
Davidson, with a student body of about 1,900, is predominantly white and the theatre department reflects that. She looked to A&T, a historically Black public university in Greensboro with about 11,000 students and a renowned theatre arts program.
And here’s where “it’s all about who you know” comes in. She perused A&T’s website and discovered that her old friend and colleague Greg Horton is now interim head of their theatre department.
Twenty years ago, Henderson and Horton worked together for a professional theatre group at Louisiana State University. She served as stage manager, he designed costumes and taught as a visiting professor.
She reached out, they reconnected, brought in their colleagues and students, and gave birth to the new company.
Besides Henderson and Horton, the group’s leadership includes Davidson’s Theatre Department Chair Mark Sutch, and A&T’s Donna Bradby. The company employs four student interns from each college as well as local professional actors.
“People say it all the time, but it’s really true,” Henderson said. “The theatre world is a really small one.”
Long Days & Fast Friendships
The four Davidson interns met the four A&T interns just weeks ago and have already formed their own small world as they prepare for the company’s first season.
They’ve painted, built and staged props. They’ve memorized lines, and managed lighting, screens, and casts. One designed the promotion posters, and all worked on a social media campaign.
In a separate venture, they’re writing and producing a children’s show they plan to put on at local summer camps.
“After going through this, I realize I can conquer anything,” Corin Davis, a theatre arts major and rising senior at A&T said. “It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I’ve worked at Chick-fil-A and waited tables. But I’m thankful and grateful to be part of this. If you love something, you need to make sacrifices to achieve your end goal.”
The interns live in a Davidson residence hall. They work long hours and often share meals. They have become friends—and each other’s future connections.
“After work, we all hang out together,” said Davidson’s Katie Stewart ’23, the company’s stage manager. “It’s been so great. Everyone is united by this. We all love theatre and we all love putting on a show.”
The Davidson students have introduced their A&T partners to their favorite places in town. The A&T students have invited their Davidson crew to visit Greensboro and attend their school’s homecoming in fall.
“I think of it as more of a melting pot than a culture clash,” said Joshua Suiter, who recently graduated from A&T, has a leading role in Violet, and is pursuing a theatre career. “We genuinely love them.
“It’s been a journey, but anytime you can do what you love and make great friends along the way is a blessing,”
Theatre for Change
Two years ago, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a horrifying act captured on video and seen worldwide. Subsequent protests led to calls for ending racism in all elements of society. The theatre world issued its own action plan, demanding equity in opportunity, pay and representation.
“There’s always been a lot of systemic racism in our industry, and artists of color have always been under-represented,” Henderson said. “I wanted something different for our company.”
Bradby, a veteran theatre professor and producer who’s directing Barbecue, said that many businesses and institutions talk about the need for racial equity, but don’t always follow through.
“I never imagined that a college like Davidson would be interested in taking something like this on and asking us to be part of it,” Bradby said. “I’ve been in the theatre world for a long time. You always hear people say we have to be more diverse and more inclusive—well I’m Black. I’ve been the one not included, not in the room, and the voice people didn’t want to hear.”
The Davidson and A&T collaboration could be a model for progress.
Bradby said she loves both shows and how they collectively challenge people’s perceptions on themes such as love, culture, race, body image and spirituality.
“Violet is such a beautiful story,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite musicals, and the music itself is wonderful.”
“In Barbecue, you have this white family that many would describe as ‘white trash.’ Then you have a Black family others would call ‘ghetto,’’’ Bradby said. “And they’re all struggling with the same problem and they’re all one big hot mess.”
Theatre can connect us, she said.
“You look at the national stage, and people want to make us believe that we hate each other, that we can’t talk to someone who looks or thinks differently,” Bradby said. “Then you look at this project, you look at the people here, and yes, we’ve had different life experiences, but we have so much in common.”