An inventive historical drama both spurs and models contemplation
By Louis G. Smith
Sitting in a packed, open-air “house” — the remains of the Virginia Theological Seminary’s Immanuel Chapel, which burned in 2010 — I had the good fortune to witness Dust, an ambitious theater project by Welsh playwright Non Vaughan-O’Hagan and staged October 13-16 as part of the seminary’s bicentennial celebrations.
Directed and produced by Ryan Rilette, artistic director of Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, with guidance by VTS scholar Riley Temple, the play uses a 120-minute span as the container for unsung characters, actions, and insights that fill approximately 74,825 days of the seminary’s fraught existence. Our guide is the Maker, Vaughan-O’Hagan’s omniscient narrator played with an engaging balance of gravity and everyman humanity by Craig Wallace. Production manager Beth Ribar created a breathtaking set, plus stadium seating, from the roofless, two-and-a-half-walled red brick chapel remains known to seminarians as “the chapel garden.”
As might be expected of a performance about a seminary’s history, the scriptural references are copious. Such references range from the play’s title to the slices of apple the Maker dispenses to other characters, carving them from fruit he carries in his pocket. And yet the writing is seldom heavy-handed, with the apple-divvying moments delivered more as a winking aside to the audience than as a forced injection into the characters’ exchanges.
The most historically and reflectively exciting moments of the play — and there were many — involve Wallace’s ability to move the Maker from wistful, aw-shucks soliloquies that belie the seriousness of topics like disenfranchisement to direct conversation with the play’s characters. The sense that this production was conceived as part of an institutional reckoning of sorts was inescapable throughout the performance, evinced by everything from the setting to the plain introduction offered by the seminary’s Dean, the Very Rev. Dr. Ian Markham, to the Maker’s initial, orienting soliloquy: “This is all borrowed time, all borrowed land.”
The conversations between the Maker and the characters revived by Vaughan-O’Hagan, from Jim Crow-era laborers to luminaries of the seminary’s histories, introduce and inspire imagination in the best tradition of theater. One example occurs when the Maker visits during the seminary’s 1923 preparations for its centennial to converse with the unwitting Dean Berryman Green, portrayed by Nick Fruit with the contained freneticism appropriate to a leader on a divine mission. As Green’s aloofness and self-importance evolve during the conversation, we are forced to ask ourselves how often we, in our daily lives or most trying moments, overlook the spark of divinity in others.
At the same time, we are forced to imagine how we might best share our wisdom, our righteousness, or whatever light of God shines within us, with the humility and patience of the Maker. When the Maker shares his country anecdotes about his Aunt May, they lead to universal aphorisms that similarly connect us to real debates about the world we live in. Green’s exchange with the Maker at the end of one such allegory (Green: “Are you saying God’s Word changes?” The Maker: “No, but perhaps our eyesight needs refining”) urges us to rethink precepts we take for granted.
Indeed, much of the play’s magic lies in Vaughan-O’Hagan’s choice of which unlikely conversations her script should ask the cast to bring to life. The unabashedly caustic racism of a Union soldier who receives care, during the seminary’s stint as a Union hospital, is jarring — all the more so given his obliviousness that his survival is dependent on the people he reviles — but it is not entirely unexpected or instructive.
The cast uses a variety of techniques that might come off as kitschy in less able hands: unabashedly ignoring the fourth wall; presenting a litany of tribulations in the context of a game show; using a circus big-top theme to illustrate the mind-boggling feats of life-juggling that VTS’s “firsts” — Bishop John Thomas Walker, the first Black VTS graduate, and Allison Cheek, who as part of the Philadelphia 11 was among the first women to be ordained — had to pull off.
The subtleties of the script, such as Vaughan-O’Hagan’s artful wordplay, do well to center stories heretofore left untold. Green’s humorous conflation of “millstones” with “milestones,” for example, takes an elucidating turn when the script journeys to Bishop Francis McNeece Whittle’s 1878 establishment of the Bishop Payne Divinity School, created so that Black men could be educated for the ministry. Seen from another angle and articulated by the character of Faith (played with straightforward authenticity and power, without cliché or sentimentality, by the talented Afua Busia), Bishop Whittle “used his position to disenfranchise and segregate.”
In other words, Faith asserts, Bishop Whittle’s efforts to ensure that African American men not be excluded from the ministry was less than a half-measure; it was a perpetuation of existing ills because Whittle did not insist that Black candidates simply be admitted to Virginia Theological Seminary. Without question, Whittle would have been a heroic figure had he done so, but it’s unlikely he would have been able to ordain George Freeman Bragg, a Black man, as a deacon in 1887 and as a priest in 1888.
On the one hand, this moment therefore seems to mark an unusual deviation from Vaughan-O’Hagan’s otherwise characteristic subtlety. We are forced to choose between two poles: was Whittle indispensable to the advent of Black clergy within the church, as previous accounts would posit, or was he an agent of racism and Jim Crow? Perhaps a little of both, but Dust doesn’t give us that option, and in that way catches a snag on the thorny impediments marking the polarization of contemporary discourse. On the other hand, the starkness of Faith’s assessment may be exactly the point — maybe the voice and perspective that’s been missing for so long needs to drown out others to restore a sense of balance. But it seems more likely to lead to continued entrenchment.
The rare, momentary strains aside, the play does so very much — some might deem its aspirations unattainable — so very well. Vaughan-O’Hagan, Rilette, Ribar, and cast and crew get us from then to now, from there to here, and do so with fluidity and grace for the most part, and with substantially meaningful effect. As plainly stated during the welcome and introductory soliloquy, the play sets out to hold the good and the bad at the same time, and to tell a gigantic story in two short hours. By and large, it succeeds in wonder-inspiring style.
Louis G. Smith is director of community and equity at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.