When my husband and I returned to the Midlands from Washington, DC, in 1986, the new Trustus Theater was one of Columbia’s first cultural offerings to surface on our radar.
Not much was happening in the late ’80s as most of us were still traumatized by bulky hair, parachute pants, and Reagan. There were a few loyal restaurants, a few crowded bars – nothing compared to the entertainment and nightlife we had just left.
But it was OK. We were 30 years old and had a family – two kids sixteen months apart – so our priorities had recently turned into a little David the Gnome inventory on TV and trips to the grocery store to stack strollers full of Pampers and baby food.
But on the weird evenings when we could remember our pre-parental selves, we yearned to shower and put on clean clothes and venture out into the world for some kind of stimulation that would make us laugh, think, or stay in awe. And we always got it from the Trustus Theater.
It was the purpose of Trustus – and the reason Kay and Jim Thigpen founded it in 1985 – to give the Columbia public a place where our spirits and spirits could grow and step outside of life’s routine and pedestrianized boundaries. daily and become more fully realized beings. More human in all the ways we can be human.
And it was successful.
The Trustus Theater struggled with growing pains, money issues, a sometimes intimidated community that didn’t always understand or appreciate what was going on inside this dark performance space on Lady Street with its chairs fluffy and its free popcorn. As it persisted, it became the most adventurous, innovative and revolutionary institution in the city, if not the state.
Kay Thigpen passed away on September 20, leaving behind a theater that had already been recently shaken by the departure of longtime Thigpen protege and heir apparent, Chad Henderson. Kay’s husband, art partner and visionary colleague Jim had already passed away in 2017. (Full disclosure: Henderson is this writer’s son-in-law.)
The two weeks since Thigpen’s death have been filled with the kind of community heartbreak that only an icon can compel.
Remembering Thigpen that Henderson wrote for an upcoming issue of Jasper Magazine, he writes about Thigpen’s beloved but hard-to-interpret idiosyncrasies, his unwillingness to suffer fools, and his belief that the smartest and best parts of Thigpen between us, as Colombians, would eventually prevail.
“As the lights shine on the marquees outside the Trustus Theater, Kay and Jim are the power that makes this magic happen,” he writes. “It’s like the children standing in front of Willy Wonka’s factory: something is happening in this building. Something that started 37 years ago with daring, confidence and belief in this city. They expected more from the artists and the audience in Columbia, and they gave it to us.
The legacy Kay Thigpen left behind was her vision for what theater could be in the place she adopted as her home.
As we learn to evolve as an artistic community without its honesty, constant presence and support, it is important that we not only recognize but support its legacy.
Yes, there is a building called the Trustus Theater, but the lessons learned and dreams realized that make up the remnants of Kay and Jim Thigpen cannot be contained within its four walls with its new roof and new air conditioner. So many artists and spectators gave their talent and confidence to the Thigpens that together they not only built a theater, but they also created a philosophy for professional theater artists and their progressive audiences to follow.
Maintaining the Thigpen legacy means not starting over with a clean slate because there is no clean slate.
Dewey Scott-Wiley generously became interim artistic director, a role she already played for three seasons, to help the theater make the transition to new leadership, and that’s a good thing. Scott-Wiley has the intellectual and emotional skills to understand what needs to be done and what needs to go on in the same vein that Kay and Jim wanted.
Moving forward, Scott-Wiley and the loyal members of his board of directors must remember that the Thigpen era is more than just a stroke in the history of the Columbia Theater, it’s the whole picture.
Supporting Kay Thigpen’s legacy means building on her vision for the institution she and Jim built. The improvements are good, but the renovations are unnecessary.
Cindi Boiter is a writer, editor and arts advocate. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Jasper magazine and the literary magazine Fall Lines and executive director of the Jasper Project.