The new Alice Holst Theater at Pacific Union College was inaugurated in March with the world premiere of an unusual play called “Red Books: Our Quest for Ellen White.” Researched, written, and produced by a team of students and alums, this work proved to be an exceptional way to kick off the new theater’s career and sparked dialogue among individuals and community.
It began over five years ago when Mei Ann Teo, the resident artist and artistic director of the PUC Dramatic Arts Society and Napa Valley Musical Theatre, heard a presentation on the Shakers’ relationship to their founder and the pattern of various generations’ reactions to iconic figures. The question was whether this applied to Adventists and their relationship through the years with Ellen White.
So in 2006 Teo teamed with PUC students Eryck Chairez and Zach Dunn to concept a script. In the fall they cast the play, and with Chairez in the director’s seat, the team began production. The writers and cast members conducted, compiled, and re-enacted interviews in an organic process to determine which notes to include in the story. As Chairez wrote additional scenes to connect the voices, the script began to take shape.
As the narrative came together, however, it was obvious that the play was extending from a look at our complex interactions with White to a look at how we experience Adventism. “Ellen started off as just the subject in our play; she ended up representing the spiritual struggle of our community,” Chairez explains.
For Teo, it was a journey to the basics of our denomination. “In the process of discovering the history of our opinions on Ellen White,” she recounts, “I was forced to confront the very basis of Adventism. What was it that made Adventists Adventist?”
The team took a collective journey, but each was also affected individually by the process and exploration. “The actors are not the same ones that walked through our doors to audition in September,” says Chairez. “I am not the same person I was nine months ago when we started this.”
The goal of the finished play was to weave a wide spectrum of voices, both Adventist and ex-adventist and varied in age, viewpoint, and experience, into a larger picture—not to give an “answer” on Ellen White or the church, but to provide a chance to dialogue, to remember, to inform, and maybe even to heal.
“Red Books” was limited by time and venue, and not everybody feels that it presents the whole picture. “I think the biggest difficulty was deciding what to cut,” says Teo. “We collected so much fascinating material that isn’t in the play.” But with dialogue as the primary goal of this project, it is apparent that it has already been successful.
On progressiveadventism.com, an online forum coordinated by “Red Books” interviewee and former PUC professor Julius Nam, an extensive dialogue about the church has developed, with other blog sites reflecting similar conversations that people around the world are engaging in. Some question elements of the play and the accuracy of their portrayal of historical experiences, or their ability to heal. All seem to agree, however, that the play is part of a much-needed process of dialogue and humble self-assessment within the church.
Vanessa Jett, a student who helped with the box office for “Red Books,” was impressed by the immediate conversation that the play sparked. “It's so exciting to hear people talk about the show during intermission and after,” she says, “about Ellen White, and Adventism, and how they grew up. They're talking about family dynamics, and life experiences, and church perspectives, and beliefs and opinions. It’s inspiring.”
The play, which was attended by over 1,000 guests, drew noteworthy audience members ranging from East Coast dramatists to conference president Jim Pederson and prolific author George Knight (whose authorship includes books on Adventist heritage, including Ellen White). Charles White, a great-great-grandchild of Ellen White, flew out from Arizona with his wife, Dianne, to see the play. During the talk-back at the end of the play, both expressed gratitude for the work; Charles shared appreciation for the fact that this sort of endeavor fulfills the need for promoting awareness of these topics and looking at them from new perpspectives.
In the end, “Red Books” and its accompanying dialogue is all about taking a fresh look at who we are as Adventists. Teo asks viewers to describe their Adventism in a sentence. Hers is this: “A place where the search for truth is incessant and where faith will carry you through.”
As the drama program at PUC continues to grow, “Red Books” moves it forward on its quest for a role in the ongoing dialogue of campus, community, and Adventism.