Dwayne Yancey play on Russian tragedy to be read amid Soviet propaganda posters

57 Hours in the House of Culture
Scene from Studio Roanoke’s 2012 production of “57 Hours in the House of Culture.” Photo by David Gross.

“I’m not much on message plays,” says Dwayne Yancey, a playwright, veteran journalist and The Roanoke Times’ opinion page editor who gained a legion of followers for his coverage of Sweet Briar’s story over the past year.

But he does hope his audience will come away from “57 Hours in the House of Culture” with an understanding of what the 2002 Moscow theater siege was like for the 912 people there — theatergoers like themselves, who became trapped in a hostage crisis.

“Perhaps the next time they go to a play, they’ll think about the people in Moscow who died simply because they loved theater and went to a show on the wrong night,” he says.

The play, which premiered in Roanoke in 2012, will be presented as a dramatic reading at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, in Pannell Gallery at Sweet Briar.

Yancey says he was drawn to the story for several reasons.

“First, it was a traumatic episode in Russia — some call it Russia’s 9-11 — yet it is not that well-known in the West. Second, this happened in a theater, so it seemed appropriate to come up with some theatrical response.”

But how to best tell the story? Having written several historical plays, among them his most frequently produced script, “Red Moon Rising in the East,” Yancey knew how important it was to get it right.

Dwayne Yancey on set
Dwayne Yancey poses with a prop gun at Studio Roanoke in 2012. Photo by Sam Dean, The Roanoke Times.

“I read every account I could find about the incident, but I concluded I could never find enough facts to support a specific re-telling of the story,” he says.

“Plus, I feared that even if I did, it would have a ‘documentary’ feel to it, and that seemed boring. At some point, I hit upon the idea of telling it through the ghosts of the victims. In the theater world, there’s the legend of the ‘theater ghost’ — it seemed to me that would be a way to tell a stylized version of the story.”

Most of the characters are fictional, but the backstory, including the timeline and the terrorists’ motives, is true, Yancey says. In a full production, the audience is held in the lobby, while “soldiers” guard the doors to the theater.

“I wanted to make people feel as if they were really there,” he says.

At the appointed time, the doors open and the audience enters. Inside, they “find chairs overturned, trash strewn about the theater, poison gas swirling in the air — ideally, dry ice, if you want to keep an actual audience,” he jokes, “and dead bodies lying about. Once the audience is in play, the bodies come to life and tell their tale.”

Sweet Briar’s production of “57 Hours,” directed by local actress, director and assistant professor Melora Kordos, will be slightly different. The reason for this is its unusual space: the College’s main art gallery. And there’s a reason for that, too. The play is presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Art for the People: Propaganda and Public Service,” which features Soviet propaganda posters from the 1920s and ’30s.

Soviet propaganda oster
Aleski Kokorekin, “From Military Power to Industrial Power (From the Strike Brigades to the Strike Factories),” 1930, color lithograph on paper, 41 1/8 x 28 ¼ inches

Sweet Briar galleries and museum director Karol Lawson was planning the exhibit last fall when Kordos began teaching at the College, and the two started talking. Kordos, who has known Yancey for many years, immediately thought of his play.

Lawson was intrigued.

“I have been making an effort in recent years to bring performances into the gallery space, where the performers are surrounded by wonderful visual art that has a certain resonance with the performance’s substance,” she says.

“I am just really delighted to be able to bring a variety of people and disciplines into the art galleries — especially when such events pull in fresh, original talent from our region and when the subjects tackled are prickly, meaty and profound.

“The issues of public propaganda brought up by ‘Art for the People’ and the issues of terrorism and the response to it that shape ‘57 Hours in the House of Culture’ are timely and relevant.”

Doors open at 7 p.m. No reservations or tickets are required, but please note that the content may not be suitable for children. Refreshments will be provided. For more information, please contact Lawson at klawson@sbc.edu or (434) 381-6248.