By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
In commemoration of its upcoming 200th anniversary, the Virginia Theological Seminary will premiere “Dust,” a play detailing the institution’s complex history and serpentine path that led to where it is today. The first performance will take place tonight in the Chapel Garden.
The play is an effort to reconcile with VTS’ past, exploring how “faith, American history, blindness, hypocrisy, vocation and God come together in an incendiary mix,” according to VTS’ website.
Directed by Ryan Rilette, artistic director of the Round House Theatre, and written by Non Vaughan-O’Hagan, London’s West End stage playwright, “Dust” incorporates humor and poignance to produce the story of a centuries-spanning journey told by those who lived it.
“The complete story needs to be told – the good and the bad. Partial stories that make the successors in the present feed good cannot and will not do anymore,” Rev. Ian Markham, dean of VTS, said.
Several years ago, Markham commissioned Vaughan-O’Hagan to create the play after the two had a conversation about her latest work, “I, Dido.” The play was about the inception of the abolitionist movement in 18th century London and had been revived for the Bloomsbury Festival in London.
According to Vaughan-O’Hagan, the process was set into motion rather simply.
“Ian asked me how [he] would go about commissioning a play and I replied, ‘You just have to ask,’” she said.
From there, Vaughan-O’Hagan embarked on a time-consuming expedition in order to learn everything she could about VTS’ rich and layered history.
“‘Dust’ demanded a wealth of research – from a phrase in the Piscataway language to the exact time Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner in Woodstock in 1969,” she recalled. “Trying to find a framework which allows the audience to travel in time and place was a particular challenge.”
Vaughan-O’Hagan landed on a structure that breaks the fourth wall, often acknowledging that actors are onstage creating a play. The first act jumps back 100 years ago, where the actors are at a rehearsal for the first 100-year celebration of the seminary’s existence.
At that point in the story, quite a bit of VTS’ history – such as the exclusion, racism and leaning on Black on-campus labor without compensation during slavery, Reconstruction and segregation under Jim Crow laws – is omitted from the narrative.
The second act follows the next 100 years of VTS, featuring contemporary actors trying to determine the best way to tell the institution’s full story. The result is a deconstructed, true display of grappling with history; it’s also part of the reason Rilette signed on in the first place.
Rilette, a self-described “lapsed Catholic,” grew up in the church with a father who was a deacon. Past experiences left a sour taste in his mouth and a lasting view that the Catholic church is often exclusionary.
He accepted an offer to direct “Dust” because of VTS’ exhibited commitment to repairing the damage it caused over the years. For instance, the seminary announced in 2019 the launch of a $1.7 million “reparations initiative,” in which it sought out descendants of enslaved Black people who labored at the seminary during the antebellum and Jim Crow eras for little to no money.
In February 2021, VTS began distributing $2,100 cash payments to the generation closest to the original workers. This past summer, more than 250 family members attended a private dinner at VTS to continue the conversation.
“I don’t normally take a lot of outside projects, but the fact that this is a seminary that … is really trying to find ways to truly create a fully inclusive church – to me, that is antithetical to my experience of the church,” Rilette said. “ … To find a place like this, that is so incredibly inclusive and so incredibly sensitive to the ways in which they have harmed in the past, just felt like a project that I wanted to be involved in in some way.”
Rilette said the process of creating the play has been a large undertaking, specifically when it came to pinpointing a location. Initially, the plan was for “Dust” to take place in a small black box theater, but designers all agreed the space was too small.
Because one goal of the play was to bring the seminary’s architecture into the black box theater, Rilette and several designers toured VTS’ campus. They stumbled on the Old Chapel and immediately thought it would be a perfect location to host the play; not only was it “beautiful unto itself,” Rilette said, but the play also includes a section about the chapel burning down.
Although it was significantly more expensive to hold the play in the Chapel Garden, VTS enthusiastically agreed.
“I said, ‘Let me just warn you: It’s going to cost a lot more because you basically have to build the theater out here,” and they [said], “Well, you know, you only turn 200 once and we want to do this as well as we possibly can,” Rilette said.
The show was filmed last night and will be sent to other seminaries around the world as a way to demonstrate to other institutions how it’s possible to commemorate one’s past without celebrating it.
“What’s been driving our process throughout the entire thing is this idea that the play as a whole is trying to grapple with the seminary’s history as a way of cleaning the palate and looking forward to the future,” Rilette said.
For Vaughan-O’Hagan, the hope is that all audience members who view the play, whether that be priests, seminarians or community members, come away with a deeper understanding of American history through the prism of VTS.
“This play seeks to be funny, moving and thoughtprovoking. I hope the audience leaves with a sense that they have an understanding of the experience of others and an appreciation of [the] wonderful institution, the Virginia Theological Seminary, which they have on their doorstep,” Vaughan-O’Hagan said.
VTS has a narrative, and through “Dust” it aims to share the full scope of that narrative in hopes of living authentically and carving out a more equitable future. Markham called the process of telling VTS’ complex story “hard, technical, demanding work” that is best done with the pen of a playwright.
“The seminary must face both grace and sin – both its faithfulness and flaws,” Markham said. “Telling the complete story requires a play; this play does important work, and this play will be transformative for the seminary as we seek to live aware of our past so that the future can be different.”
“Dust” will be performed outdoors at 7 p.m. tonight through Sunday. For more information, visit https://vts.edu/dust/.