By Adria Walker
The Christian Center remodel means the Millsaps Players, the college theater production group, will have to search for a new home to showcase productions.
The Christian Center was the longtime home of the departments of religious studies, history, and theatre, and it included, as its focal point the only theater on campus.
After the 18-month long renovation process is completed, the redesigned Christian Center will replace the theater with an interfaith chapel, which will be “a sacred space—for people of all faiths and backgrounds,” according to the statement released in the August 2017 Millsaps Bulletin.
The Millsaps Players have known only one home, the Christian Center theater, for the past several decades.
“The Millsaps Players have been housed there for decades, and we hear lots of tales of the Players’ productions packing the hall there for years,” Keith Dunn, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, said.
But, because of the remodeling, the theater will lose this home—with no short-term replacement set.
“The long-range plan for theatre is up in the air… The likely long-range plan is a performing arts center that will sit on the northeast corner that has a state of the art black box theater in it,” Dunn told the Purple & White in May. “But, we have yet to determine through the series of feasibility studies, including fundraising and operations of that facility whether that facility will come to fruition or not. Until we make that determination, it’s really hard to make a permanent plan to where the theater will land.”
Ninette Hickey is a senior studio art major and theatre minor (the college doesn’t offer a major, just a minor) from New Orleans, La., and she is disappointed by the remodeling plans.
“We have no place to go that has the equipment to do what we want to do,” Hickey said.
She has been involved with the theatre program since she was a freshman. Hickey describes herself as one of the people who tried their best to take care of the Christian Center theater.
“The CC has, or had, (a) huge theater and there’s a lot of different kinds of lights and different kinds of sound equipment in there,” she said. “It’s actually a really, really nice theater, it just hasn’t been taken care of very much.”
The theater played host to several well-renowned guests. Robert F. Kennedy, Jane Goodall, Truman Capote, former President George Bush Sr. and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher all spoke in the Christian Center theater.
In the past, the Mississippi Junior Classical League held its annual convention at Millsaps, primarily utilizing the Christian Center building, theater and front lawn.
Millsaps students who weren’t officially members of the theatre department also utilized the theater. In February 2016, then student Ericka Wheeler conceived “Negro Necropolis: The Black History Experience”, directed by Peter Friedrich with technical direction by Matt Holl, which brought the CC to life in an interactive theater experience. Students, professors and cafeteria workers dressed as various living and dead activists including Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson and Rev. Ed King, re-enacting history for participants.
Most recently, in spring 2017, the theatre department put on a production of Major Havoc, an hour-long show completely student-run, from scripts to performance and production. All proceeds went to the Jackson Arts Council, and Millsaps cafeteria, grounds-keeping, facilities and housekeeping staff who attended the play received free champagne and VIP-seating.
During the fall semester of the 2016-2017 school year, the Millsaps Players performed what would end up being the last traditional play in the Christian Center’s theater, Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Peter Friedrich, chair of the theatre department, has been at Millsaps for three years, and knew about the potential remodel plans.
“It was already established before I came here that the theater in the Christian Center was going to go, the question that remains is where will it go?” he said.
Right now, the long-term answer is nowhere permanent.
Dunn says the current plan is to house theater productions for the next few years in the Campbell Center lower conference space, known to most students as the former Kava House. This space is drastically different from the actual theater in which the Players have performed for the last several decades. Kava lacks decent natural acoustics, theater lighting and a true stage.
“I’m not really sure how (doing performances in Kava) is going to work, technically,” Hickey said. “Kava is very small, the stage is very small and there are no technical lights… There are limited sets that you could do… There is only one speaker and you could fit, maybe, 50 people in there. It’s sad.”
There is faculty support for a continued viable theater program, however, regardless of the space.
“Of all programs that need to be thriving at a liberal arts college… it is theatre because, theatre is out there in a way and engages the public in ways that other programs don’t,” James Bowley, professor and chair of religious studies, said.
In the three years Friedrich has been at Millsaps, he and the theatre department have been involved with multiple Millsaps and community-wide projects. In 2015, the Players’ technical team helped Habitat for Humanity Bay-Waveland rehabilitate a home. That same year, all of the tickets sales from the Players’ production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest went to Habitat Bay-Waveland. In the 2017 spring semester, the Theatre Department hosted “Lifetime Presents: Faculty Confessions” and “How to be a Citizen: Action Jackson.”
Once the Christian Center is remodeled in over a year, Friedrich says that it will not be possible to use the chapel as a theater space, though, because it will be a multi-faith worship space. However, if, instead, a theater was built, Friedrich says the theater department would be more than welcome to house any religious services.
“My thoughts on any remodeling that doesn’t include a theater shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. I want a theater. I think the campus deserves a theater,” he said.
Hickey has similar sentiments.
“All of the equipment in there is so useful and so high tech anyway, and if it was just refurbished it would be an amazing place. It already is an amazing place, it just needs a little love. I don’t think tearing it down will really help anyone. It’ll just make the theatre department disappear,” she said.
Editor’s Note: Adria Walker played a role in “Negro Necropolis.”