A musical drama in 2 act/ Music by Jeanine Tesori; Book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Based on The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts.
Playwrights Horizons, Off-Broadway - 14th February, 1997 - 6th April, 1997. (32 perfs; 29 previews)
Set in 1964 in the Deep South during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, “Violet” follows the growth and enlightenment of a bitter young woman accidentally scarred by her father. In hopes that a TV evangelist can cure her, she embarks on a journey by bus from her sleepy North Carolina town to Oklahoma. Along the way, she meets a young black soldier who teaches her about beauty, love, courage and what it means to be an outsider.
One of the most acclaimed off-Broadway shows of the ’90s, “Violet” astounded critics and audiences with its powerful story, its energetic, toe-tapping Gospel, Rock, Country, and Rhythm and Blues score by Jeanine Tesori, and its well-crafted book and lyrics by Brian Crawley that are not afraid to deal with important, sensitive issues. Its simple set and modest cast and orchestra requirements adjust to any scale production. “Violet” features a strong ensemble cast with bravura roles for the two leads.
The story begins on a sleepy street in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina on September 4th, 1964. Perhaps the only sounds to be heard are a breeze in the trees, a creaking window shutter, and a lazy dog sniffing up trouble.
Two scenes are taking place simultaneously. In the present, Violet is kneeling on a bench with her back to us reading a bus schedule. In the past, Young Vi, about 13, is gathering split kindling to the percussive sound of wood being chopped. The two are in separate domains, not aware of each other. Suddenly, the voice of Violet's father cries, "Violet, watch out!" Young Vi straightens, her mouth open wide, terrified by something we can't see. Older Violet stiffens. Leroy Evans, a man walking his dog, approaches Violet and asks if she's going anywhere. It's obvious he won't look her straight in the face. She doesn't respond to him. Rather, she looks at her luggage and comments on how stupid this town is. Of course she is going somewhere – she is sitting at a bus station with her luggage.
The bus pulls in and Violet and an Old Lady gather their bags and board the bus. The Old Lady finally looks at Violet's face and is taken aback by the huge scar (which the audience never sees). An axe blade split her face in two when she was a child, and she has lived with this scar ever since. Violet is on her way to Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Old Lady is on her way to Nashville to see her family.
In the past, we see Young Vi tearing down the mountain and almost running into her father, who is struggling up the path with a burlap bag over his shoulder. Violet is terribly upset because it appears that the Elam Brother, boys from the town, came to pester the poor deformed girl. They told her that her accident is her "just desserts" for never going to church on Sunday. She bursts into tears as she asks her father if this is true. He cheers her up by giving her a quarter for the new picture show, while he goes off to deal with the Elam Brothers.
The bus stops for twenty minutes at Kingsport, Tennessee. Violet takes a place at the rest stop grill and orders a tuna fish sandwich. Seeing her grotesque scar, the waiter asks her to take a place at one of the booths. He doesn't want the rest of the customers to be frightened because of her.
Flick, a black soldier who has been riding on the bus with her, is talking with, Monty, a white paratrooper. The two are preparing to play cards. The waiter looks at Flick with a prejudiced disdain. Flick and Monty move to a table and Violet follows them and asks to join them in a game of straight draw poker.
The scene shifts back in time and we see Young Vi carrying a bag full of store-bought goods. She gives the bag and a handful of change to her father. He looks at the goods, counts the change, and scolds Violet for once again getting short-changed. To teach her some 'rithmetic, her father sits her down and teaches her draw poker, which will aid her in learning subtraction and give her "something to do with boys, when the time comes for that. ("Luck of the Draw") Pretty soon Young Vi is beating her father at cards, and Older Violet is beating Flick and Monty.
The Bus Driver announces that the bus will be leaving in five minutes. Violet continues talking with Flick who is impressed with her card dealing. She tells him that growing up high on a mountain, with her mother dying so early, there wasn't anything to do except to play cards with her father. She tells him she is travelling to Tulsa to see a television preacher who heals. With his aid, she plans to come home beautiful. Flick laughs at her and her preacher. He'd trade his black skin for her scar any day! Violet says she doesn't have any need for black skin. She wants people to think she's pretty! Flick runs off obviously hurt by her remark. Monty calms Violet down.
We learn she is twenty-five, her father died three years ago, and she has seen many doctors about her scarred face. They all said she waited too long, so seeing this faith healer is her last hope. Monty warns her to be careful and not put too much hope in this healing preacher. In the midst of his advice, Monty grabs Violet's catechism and starts to read from it mockingly. Violet cries out and Flick comes to her aid, stopping Monty from acting so childishly.
In a flashback, Young Vi is hiding in the attic, reading by a flashlight. She hears her father calling from downstairs. He enters the room demanding that Vi give over the book. It is just her mother's catechism, but he feels she is too young to be reading it. It isn't the religion that bothers him; it's what mama wrote inside that worries him. Vi asks her father if it is true that her mother could have had the choice of any boy in five counties. Her father doesn't want any questions from his young daughter, so he challenges her to play cards.
A new driver speaks over the P.A. system as they reach the Nashville station. The Old Lady invites Violet to stay overnight at her son's house in Nashville. That way she can freshen up and be on her way tomorrow. Violet turns down the Old Lady's offer, saying she's in a hurry to get to Tulsa. The woman presses the point by saying it's not proper for a young girl to travel alone with two soldiers. Flick and Monty are rude to the woman, and she leaves. Violet is not impressed by their actions. Things will be different for Violet after she is changed in Tulsa. She's ready for a transition. She wants to look like every famous movie star out there with looks to spare. With all her beauty, someone might meet her and fall in love with her. As the two men board the bus, Violet sees her accident happen in her mind.
Violet dreams that she is being healed in the Preacher's chapel. Young Vi is brought up to the Preacher who heals her scarred face in front of a television audience. Soon she is nudged by Flick who hears her talking in her sleep. Once again they discuss Violet's situation and how she wants to change. As far as Violet is concerned people take one look at her and think that's all there is. She wants people to see past her scar and get to know her for who she really is. Flick has a hard time understanding this because, as a black man in 1960s America, he will always be marked by the colour of his skin. He tells her you choose your road and then you walk it alone, one step at a time.
The bus arrives at Memphis, the last stop. Everyone leaves the bus to make connections. Flick and Monty plan on spending the night in Memphis at a nearby boarding house, and Flick asks Violet to join them since her bus doesn't leave until the next morning at 6 a.m. Violet doesn't think that it would be right. Instead, she plans to spend the night with some relatives she has there. She has never met them, but she is certain they will take her in. Monty goes to call her a cab. While he is gone, several mechanics get in a racial dispute with Flick that erupts into a huge fight. They mock Violet's face; she gets enraged and joins the altercation. When Monty returns, he helps Violet and Flick beat the two men. They steal Violet's suitcase as they run off. The suitcase contained the dress Violet planned to wear the next day and her relative's telephone number. She has no choice but to stay with Flick and Monty. The three of them make their way to a nearby boarding house. As Violet gets ready to go out for the evening, the landlady has a talk with Flick. She is upset that he brought two white people to her all black establishment. She has a business to consider and doesn't want the word to leak out. In fact, she asks Flick that they all use the exit on the alley. He gives her twenty dollars to try and smooth things over. Monty is ready for an evening of drinking and having the time of their lives.
With everyone out of her room, Violet takes off her dress and lies down on the bed in her slip. A hotel singer croons a song as Violet falls asleep. Young Vi rises from behind the bed and catches sight of her father. In a fantasy dream sequence, Vi's face is restored and she dances with her father. Then the Old Lady from the bus dances with her father, after swigging down a quick bourbon. The father leaves when Monty comes in and dances with the Old Lady. Finally he dances with Young Vi and reaches over and picks up Violet's diary, which lies on the nightstand. Young Vi disappears.
Violet jolts awake and sees Monty reading her book. She considers speaking, but instead lies back down and pretends to be asleep. As Monty thumbs through her diary he reads Violet's reflections about Flick, whom she finds attractive. Monty realises that ever since Violet has come along, things between Flick and himself haven't been the same; Monty regrets the day they ever met Violet on the bus. Flick enters, wondering why Monty hasn't waked her. Quickly, Monty hides Violet's diary. She wakes up, dresses, and the three go out on the town.
The scene shifts to a Memphis Dance Hall where Violet, Flick and Monty are all out on the dance floor showing off for one another as a music hall singer croons a song. Flick goes to buy some sodas. While he is gone, Monty dances closely with Violet and his hands wander a bit. When Flick returns and catches sight of this, he sets down the sodas and storms out. Violet lets go of Monty and rushes after Flick.
Violet catches up with Flick who is returning to the hotel. He tries to talk with Violet, asking if her scar hurts. He touches her face, but before he can get any closer, the landlady appears and doesn't move until the two go to their separate rooms. Violet climbs into her bed and sleeps. Monty crashes into her room. They kiss and the lights fade as he joins her on the bed. In a flash back, Billy Dean Elam is following Young Vi home. Vi gets him to confess that people have found out he is a virgin and have dared him five dollars to have sex with her. She consents and asks him to be gentle. In the present, Monty is telling Violet about his motorcycle. Monty falls asleep on Violet. Flick is standing out on the street sipping from his flask.
Flick, Monty and Violet are aboard the bus as it pulls into Fort Smith, Arkansas. The bus driver announces that this is the last stop for the soldiers. The civilians have ten minutes to use the facilities. Monty wakes up and leaves the bus to buy Violet some candy and soda; he's been buying her snacks all day. Flick stays to say good-bye to Violet. The two exchange addresses. Flick tries to make it clear that Monty thinks she's nothing but "a piece of ass." Flick is jealous; he could have gone back to her room last night before Monty did, but he didn't have the nerve. He's lonely and looking for someone. He hoped that Violet would have been that person, but he was wrong. Violet tells Flick that she is fond of him, but she needs to continue her journey.
Violet goes to the bus bathroom. Monty returns and Flick asks him to leave her be. Flick doesn't want to hear any of Monty's nonsensical charm-talk, but Monty begs his friend to help him say good-bye to Violet properly. They both hear Violet getting sick in the bathroom; she says it's from all the candy and soda. They all say goodbye rather awkwardly. Monty begins to walk away, but then turns back and asks Violet to come back and meet him at the bus station on Sunday after her healing. He offers to buys her ticket. Violet doesn't believe one word he says. No man has ever wanted her for anything other than sex; why should it be any different now? They get off the bus and she continues on her journey.
The scene changes to the Preacher's chapel, where Violet's "saviour" is working miracles. A choir is singing and everything is just as Violet had hoped it would. The proceedings suddenly stop when the Preacher becomes angry that one of his lighting specials isn't focused on him. Thinking Violet is the lighting operator, he screams at her and fires her. She tells him that she's come to be healed. He tells her that the "healing" doesn't happen until the televised show tomorrow. He sends Violet off to deal with his assistant who handles all the scheduling. Violet is taken aback because this isn't what she expected.
Alone with the preacher's assistant, Virgil, Violet thinks back on how her father carried her down to the mountain to the doctor's office to have her face fixed after the axe hit her. As she sees this scene going on her mind, she shows Virgil all the slips of paper that explain her need and have all the Bible verses which must speak for her. Virgil dismisses her saying that "all suffering has a purpose." Violet rushes off to find the Preacher in his chapel. She confronts him with numerous Bible quotes. In the course of their discussion, Violet realises that the man she put so much faith in is nothing but a fraud. He offers to pray with her to find inner beauty. Violet wants to be beautiful. The Preacher tries to reason with her about what he can and can't change. She tries to get him to start the healing ceremony.
The Preacher tries to leave, but she blocks his way and backs him up against the altar. She cries out to him and the heavens to see just how awful she looks. Violet's father has magically taken the place of the Preacher. Both Violet and Young Vi confront this man who disfigured. Why didn't he check his axe to see if the blade was loose? Why didn't he take Violet to a better doctor who could repair her face before it was too late? Did he do it on purpose so no one would come near her and she'd always be around to take care of him?
Her father tells Violet that he did the best he could do. He wishes that the accident hadn't happen, but it did. If he could take away the scar, he would. Now it's up to Violet to make the most of what she has. She seems to think that her healing has occurred. Violet seems at peace with herself and with her father. There is a great whirring sound. The miracle of regaining her beautiful face as happened.
The next day, a newly refreshed Violet boards a crowded bus. She is very proud of her new face, but she is afraid to touch it until it's settled. She knows her healing will be complete when she steps off the bus in Fort Smith. What concerns Violet most of all is that Monty won't know her. If she recognises her by her old face she decides she'll run away.
Monty does meet her at the station. He confirms that her healing is nothing more than an illusion. She dashes off but is stopped by seeing her image in a glass door. Flick is behind the door. Monty tells her he's volunteered to go to Vietnam and asks her to come to San Francisco with him for a couple of days before he's shipped out. Monty leaves alone. Violet attempts to get on the bus, but Flick stops her. He tells her how much he loves her and asks her to stay with him. She tries to leave, but he reaches out to caress and kiss her face. Violet surrenders to her feelings and stays with Flick.
(6 Men/5 Women)
- VIOLET Late 20s - Vocal Range: Mezzo(belt)
- FLICK A Soldier, Late 20s - Vocal Range: Baritone
- MONTY A Soldier, Mid 20s - Vocal Range: Tenor
- YOUNG VI Early teens. - Vocal Range: Mezzo Soprano
- FATHER Late 30s. - Vocal Range: Baritone
- OLD LADY, HOTEL SINGER, ETC. Older Woman
- PREACHER, BUS DRIVER, ETC. Mid 30s - Vocal Range: Tenor
- MUSIC HALL SINGER, MABEL, etc. Mid 30s
- GOSPEL SOLOIST, LANDLADY, etc. Older woman
- BILLY DEAN, VIRGIL, etc. Early 20s. - Vocal Range:Tenor
- RADIO SINGER, WAITER, etc. Older Man
- Bring Me To The Light - Young Vi, Flick, Violet, Monty, Father, Company
- Opening/ Water In The Well - Young Vi, Violet
- Surprised - Violet
- On My Way - Violet, Company
- Luck Of The Draw - Father, Young Vi, Violet, Monty, Flick
- Question & Answer - Monty, Violet
- All To Pieces - Violet, Monty, Flick
- Let It Sing - Flick
- Who'll Be The One (If Not Me) - Radio Singers
- You're Different - Monty
- Lonely Stranger/Anyone Would Do - Music Hall & Hotel Singers
- Lay Down Your Head - Violet
- Hard To Say Goodbye - Violet, Flick
- Promise Me, Violet - Violet, Monty, Flick
- Raise Me Up - Gospel Soloist, Preacher, Gospel Choir
- Down The Mountain - Young Vi, Father
- Look At Me - Violet, Young Vi
- That's What I Could Do - Father
- Bring Me To the Light - Ensemble
- Bass; Cello; Violin
- Drums Drum Kit, Bell Tree, Shaker, Suspended Cymbal
- Guitar 1 & 2 Acoustic Guitar, Banjo, Electric Guitar, Mandolin
- Keyboard 1
- Keyboard 2
- Keyboard 3
Scenes and Settings
- Act I: Spruce Pine, North Carolina To Kingsport, Tennessee
- Act I: Kingsport To Nashville, Tennessee
- Act I: Nashville To Memphis, Tennesse
- Act I: Memphis
- Act II: Memphis To Fort Smith, Arkansas
- Act II: Tulsa, Oklahoma-Hope And Glory Building
- Act II: Tulsa To Fort Smith, Arkansas