HANOVER COUNTY, Va. – The Virginia Repertory Theater kicks off its 70th anniversary season with the Broadway hit “Chicken and Biscuits” on September 30.
It all started at Hanover Tavern, long before Rep chief executive Phil Whiteway and co-founder Bruce Miller started working together 47 years ago.
“Virginia Repertory Theater was one of two organizations that merged in 2012. But one of those organizations was started right here in this historic Hannover tavern. And that was the Barksdale Theater 1954,” Whiteway recalled.
Before the tavern became the Barksdale, it was a favorite haunt of locals and travellers.
“It was a bar; it’s on a main thoroughfare, of course it wasn’t a highway back then… it was all horse and buggy,” Whiteway said. “Patrick Henry is known to have run a bar here at the historic Tavern. There are many important historical figures who have used this beautiful facility.
George Washington was also one of his visitors. It also attracted a group of New York actors who bought the historic tavern in 1953. It became their home and a local theater production location.
“In order to attract more people, they decided to start serving food, so they literally became the first dinner theater in the country,” Whiteway said.
Pete Kilgore, Muriel McAuley and their friends also became civic leaders. They were the first performing arts organization to open their doors to an integrated audience. The theater opened with “Gold in the Hills” featuring 16-year-old actress Sandy Wade Klein.
“If you have an exceptional memory, you might remember me from the early days of Virginia Rep, so early on it was called Barksdale Memorial Theater at Hanover Tavern,” Klein recalled. “I played in seven shows there, including the first Barksdale production in 1954.”
The Barksdale Theater and Theater Four joined forces in 2-12 and now operate as the Virginia Repertory Theater.
Over the years, the theater has produced hundreds of shows and graduating talents like Tony and Blair Underwood nominee of Petersburg, Zach Knighton of “Magnum PI” and local favorite Desiree Roots.
“I’m in the season opener at the November Theater in ‘Chicken and Biscuits,'” Roots said.
The Broadway comedy opens September 30.
Roots, who is no stranger to acting, is now the artistic director of Community.
The theater will ring in the new season with new shows and a new initiative like a Gospel Nativity with Hezekiah Walker and Virginia Union University.
“This will be one of the new projects we’ll be doing next holiday season at an undisclosed location at this time,” Roots said. “We want it to be the same as ‘The Nutcracker’. We want it to be something that’s, you know, the annual event to attend.”
The Rep will soon have a new location. Although this announcement is expected in a few weeks, the celebration will continue until August 2023.
“Yeah, we’re basically going to spend the whole year celebrating our 70th anniversary,” Whiteway said.