“To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain for the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”
– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Most of us are told as children that beauty is only skin-deep. As we get older, we quickly learn that ugliness is to the bone. I don’t know if any of you watch Comedy Central’s hilarious sitcom Corporate, but a recent episode brilliantly satirized the hypocrisy of the beauty industry. Said industry is entirely built upon the premise that women – only women – feel terrible about the way they look and can find the solution in a bottle. The company in the series decides to market a line of make-up for men, but the reps soon realise that the only way that will work is if men become as naturally insecure about their appearances as women. It doesn’t go well… but it’s incredibly funny.
Nevertheless, you see what I’m getting at: a man is told that a few age lines make him look “dignified”, whereas a woman’s complexion should be nothing short of porcelain-like from birth-to-death – anything less is a crime to not only her, but everyone who has to look at her. You add racism into the mix and it’s no wonder a country like Algeria – and African nation, mind you – would have such a terrible reaction to the coronation of its first Black beauty queen.
Violet is a story of “inner beauty” in an almost classical sense. Its eponymous lead sets out like Dorothy through OZ on a quest to fix something that was only “broken” in a superficial sense. It’s almost Aesop- or Brothers Grimm-like in its depiction of those who are outwardly beautiful/inwardly ugly, and vice versa. It’s a tale about leaning so hard on your faith to solve your problems that you might just find yourself more hurt by your devotion than your perceived injury.
Violet is nothing if not determined. After suffering a childhood injury, she now has a scar prominently displayed across her face. Though she’d resigned herself to her fate, she has a change of heart after witnessing a miracle healer on television. And just like that, she hops a Greyhound from North Carolina to Oklahoma with the intention of having the good reverend give her “a brand new face”.
What Violet didn’t expect was whom she’d meet along the way. Seated beside fellow travelers from all walks of life, Violet strikes up a friendship with soldiers Flick – a Black sergeant – and Monty – a skirt-chasing White corporal. As their bus moves on, life stories are told, risks are taken, and Violet’s perception of beauty begins to change for the better.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the Violet(s) of this production is visibly scar-free. I could tell that even without having worked with Juliana Lustenader on several occasions, and even if I weren’t sitting in one of the first three rows. Despite the fact that Violet’s scar is not only the focus of the story, but commented on frequently, it’s pretty conspicuous to have no make-up at all on either her adult or child actors. It’s akin to that old Twilight Zone episode where the lead character is a gorgeous woman, but all the others react as if she were grotesque.
Fortunately, this is only a temporary distraction that doesn’t take away from the rest of director Dyan McBride’s staging. Full disclosure: I once performed a run of McBride’s Aesop’s Funky Fables for New Conservatory, but I’ve never met her. I’m reminded of that show because of the aforementioned parable parallels that are to be found in Violet. As I said, Violet’s journey to find the preacher is akin to Dorothy’s journey to the Wizard, only with more sex, ‘60s racism, and the looming threat of the Vietnam War. What’s more, Violet’s relationship with her overprotective father and the concern over her chastity are reminiscent of medieval folklore… or the Queen and Rapunzel from Into the Woods. This gives the story a timelessness that makes it easy to relate to in any era.
On the plus side, the musical was written in a much more progressive time than its possible-classical influences, so the idea of a woman’s sexual autonomy isn’t used for shame. What’s more, it handles racism better than many recent shows I’ve seen. It’s still done with a lot of rose-colored optimism (the problems – nay, dangers – interracial couples faced in the ‘60s are brushed aside a bit too easily), but the fact that Flick is referred to as just “a nigger in a uniform” stings for all the right reasons.
Finally, it’s a story about the futility of blind faith. That can be faith in a religious figure, faith in social institutions, or simply faith in someone’s fidelity after you’ve been intimidate with them. The problem with putting that much belief into something intangible is that you’re inevitably bound to be disappointed. Given how many times Violet’s faith is shattered over the course of play, it’s to McBride’s credit that we get to see both the grand representation of her faith, as well as the silence that comes with her pain
Having worked with both Juliana Lustenader and Jon-David Randle in the past, I considered not mentioning their performances at all to maintain objectivity. But considering that the former plays the title character and the latter her (arguably) most important character interaction, I’d be remiss not to say a word or two. Let me just say that they both live up to the high standard of performance I’ve come to expect from them… plus, I had no idea Jon-David could sing, so I learned something!
And it’s not as if the rest of McBride’s cast drag their feet, performance-wise. Miranda Long plays Young Vi, whose scenes with her father (Eric Neiman) give emotional context to elder Violet’s decision. Long is a joy to watch in these scenes, establishing the foundation of our central character. Jack O’Reilly occasionally makes Monty a bit too obnoxious for his good, making his charm hard to grasp, but he’s mostly pretty affable. Clay David is far better as the mouth-frothing preacher than in his earlier unnamed roles, possibly because the preacher gives him more with which to work.
Yet, the show is nearly stolen by actresses Shay Oglesby-Smith and Taninka Baptiste. The former is mostly seen as an elderly woman none-too-shy about sharing her opinion. The latter first stands out as a hard-nosed brothel-owner who tries her level best to steer flick away from falling for Violet (this the South in 1964, after all), before Baptiste reappears as a show-stopping soloist in the preacher’s choir. All well done.
Matthew McCoy does double duty as the show’s choreographer and set designer. The latter results in a sort of walk-through museum of era markers and see-through walls that catch the eye during flashback scenes (helped by the lights of Eric Johnson). I’ve not only worked with costumer Brooke Jennings before, but I’ve seen so much of her work lately that praising her would be redundant. Let me just say that Jacqueline Dennis’s wigs accentuate the costumes well. Add in the musical direction of John Gallo and the show makes a rather impressive production (which its own site calls “small”) for an already well-done source material.
As I type this, I’ve yet to see the Oscar-winning film Green Book (starring the Bay Area’s own Mahershala Ali). I’m aware of the criticisms around it – that it treats this same era with kid gloves and leans on the “White Savior” complex – but I’ll hold off any judgment until I see it myself. Still, I know where the frustration of the critics comes from when the US is so eager to hide its own racist history.
Violet isn’t the greatest story to take on that subject matter, but it at least does so with tact and sincerity in the backdrop of a story about a young woman’s poor self-image and fragile faith. It’s a delicate balancing act that this ensemble and crew pull of well, making for a show that’s almost as enlightening as it is entertaining.
Also, the songs are good. I didn’t mention that, did I?
Violet: The Musical is scheduled to run until the 17th of March at the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 45 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
And what do YOU think?