I have never felt the weight of history on my shoulders as greatly as I did during the final set of bows for the College of William and Mary’s production of “Into the Woods.” Those bows closed the book on Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, home of the College’s theatre department for over 50 years. The building’s past was impossible to avoid. Lining the building’s halls were pictures of shows past, from Ibsen to Porter to an occasional appearance of college-aged Glenn Close. This omnipresent history made leaving PBK feel like saying goodbye to my home, despite my relative lack of experience in the building. While “Into the Woods” helped start my college theatre experience, those bows marked the end of a building that harbored those same experiences for so many others.
Fast forward to this year. As PBK prepares for renovation, the theatre department has moved into Colonial Williamsburg’s Kimball Theatre. The differences between the spaces are stark: where PBK was grand and sweeping, Kimball is small and quaint. Due to the stage’s size, sets can only be so big. The smaller lighting plot offers similar challenges, significantly lowering the number of lighting instruments available. Finally, despite being around longer than PBK’s former iteration, Kimball simply lacks the connection to the College that made PBK feel like such a home. The space is leased, not owned, by the College; rather than performing in the home of decades of prior student performers, we are merely guests in the Kimball’s space. While performing before felt like closing the book on history, now it feels like opening a new one entirely.
However, this clean slate is exactly what the theatre department needs.
The renovation of PBK presents a fresh start for a theatrical legacy peppered with failures all too relevant to the current climate of Virginia. Amongst those aforementioned pictures of Glenn Close, PBK’s walls presented images far less worthy of celebrating. A prime example showed two actors from a 1958 production “Othello,” five years prior to the College’s racial integration. For those unaware, Othello is very specifically referred to as a “Moor” — distinctively not white. Where the theatre is usually an atmosphere of social progressivism, not even it escapes our school’s racially flawed past.
Leaving the old PBK allows the department to move on in terms of both location and content. Take the department’s current production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” for example. Featuring a diverse ensemble cast of realistic characters, the show addresses contemporary issues head on. I play the bitter, racist, elderly Father Lux, a relic of that same era that allowed an all-white “Othello.” By the play’s end, Lux confronts his flawed truth for the first time, beginning to heal in the process. By attempting to mend past wrongs, shows like “Our Lady” allow the department to heal as well.
I’ll never forget my experiences performing on the PBK stage. Moving on from such a historic and convenient space has certainly had its growing pains, but these pains truly are spurring growth. Decades from now, the currently renovated PBK will probably need renovation itself. Some bright-eyed freshman will likely fill my shoes, saying goodbye to years of history only known through pictures along the hallway walls. Our legacy will be the one he closes: Let’s make sure it’s one closer to “Our Lady” than “Othello.”
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