TCC SE theater is set to premiere “Volume of Smoke” from Oct. 4 to Oct. 6.
The play is based on the Richmond Theater fire in 1811. SE student DaShaun Ellis plays the Blacksmith who is based on Gilbert Hunt, a freed Black man who played a large role in saving countless lives.
“He is a Black man who actually became a registered blacksmith in Richmond,” Ellis said. “He saved — I believe — 36 people from the fire at the Richmond Theater. He’s just a hero.”
The fire was caused when a lamp touched a set piece. Inadequacies of the building’s construction exacerbated the fire. Director Bradley McEntire cited that the incident created greater awareness of fire safety.
“It also started the first serious conversations about building codes and the possibility of regulating the building of much safer structures. For instance, the Richmond Theater had main doors that opened inward. It had very narrow aisles. The stairs leading down from the box seats were apparently never weight tested and constructed in a shoddy manner. All of this was quite a hazard in a fire. These kinds of things were considered more thoroughly from that point onward.”
Although the incident was 200 years ago, Director Bradley McEntire was drawn to the humanity of the story.
“I am fascinated by how we, both as individuals and as a larger community, deal with catastrophe,” McEntire said. “ This play features a real-life disaster, one of the most devastating of America’s early years as a young nation. The repercussions trickled outward.”
“Volume of Smoke” portrays vignettes of how survivors and victims responded to the fires.
“The play explores how we cope when we come face to face with big tragic events such as this,” McEntire said. “Sometimes we meet catastrophe with courage, sometimes with debilitating fear. Sometimes with outrage, sometimes with resignation. Sometimes it reveals our selfishness, sometimes our heroic side. It really does stress-test our most human qualities.”
Each actor plays several characters in the play. SE student Dyan Cruz plays six roles and cited the switches as the hardest aspect of her performance.
“I think it’s just hard on the fact that we play multiple characters so we can’t focus in on one,” Cruz said. “We have to constantly change and adapt, whether that be an accent, a voice, some sort of movement that character has.”
Speaking in the vocabulary of people in the 1800s was an adjustment for SE student Ri-Shay Washington.
“How they spoke in that time period is pretty different than how we speak,” Washington said. “We typically word things a certain way and then like “Oh no, that’s not how it’s said.” The language is very different.”
In addition to vocabulary, SE student Haley Ferguson learned about the culture of the time period.
“It was a big deal to go to the theater,” Ferguson said. “Going to the theater was an event, you have to get in your best dress.”
SE student Isara Al-Hilo urged the future audience to remember that the Richmond Theater fire was a historical event.
“The most important thing to takeaway from this is to remember,” Al-Hilo said. “These were real people. Especially with the Blacksmith, that was a real dude. Just be respectful of the people who died.”