Alumnus’ vision brought to life

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Walls performance
"Walls: An American Story" is about a present-day interracial couple who explore their own pasts and grapple with their own identities as family legends and stories interrupt their idealized future.

SUMMARY: Conceived by Paul Holland ('82), written and developed by theatre professor Ingrid De Sanctis, and featuring selections from her 2018 Advanced Playwriting class, "Walls: An American Story" premiered Jan. 17-19 at JMU.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)
Performance photos by Richard Finkelstein

In 2001, while researching Ellis Island’s new online immigration records, Paul Holland (’82) and his brother made a startling discovery. Their grandmother, who they had always thought was from Barcelona, Spain, was actually from Barbados.

Years later, a DNA test confirmed that Holland and his three siblings are, in fact, 18% African.

The excitement of the discovery stuck with Holland, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with an interest in storytelling and the arts. Through what he calls “a series of happy accidents,” he served as co-executive producer of the documentary film Something Ventured (2011), about the role of the venture capitalism industry in launching iconic American tech companies like Apple, Intel and Atari.

Around the same time, Holland began imagining a play based on his ancestors’ very different journeys to America in the late 1600s, one group voluntarily from England and the other aboard a slave ship from Africa. He envisioned walls on stage and a series of historical scenes tracing the two lineages through the Colonial period, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II and the modern era.

Walls Affiba Rose
Edna (Maddie Thomas) and Rose (Zoe Abdurrahman) make plans for their arrival in America.

“The notion was, as the characters matriculate through their lives, pieces of the wall would go with them,” he said. “By the time my parents meet on stage, on the dance floor in a New York City ballroom in April 1944, the walls would disappear.”

But he knew he needed a playwright to help bring the vision to life.

In Fall 2016, College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean George Sparks introduced Holland to playwright and professor Ingrid De Sanctis in the School of Theatre and Dance. “From that first conversation, I was struck by Paul’s passion and clear vision,” she said.

De Sanctis agreed to write the script. She spent a year considering the universal themes in Holland’s family story. “We all have this story of coming from somewhere, and how do those stories from the past impact the way we live today?”

In 2018, De Sanctis enlisted the help of students in her Advanced Playwriting class. Their input proved invaluable. “Some of the scenes became really edited as we went along,” she said. “The students helped me see that the historical scenes were not enough; something else needed to happen.”

Walls Abigail Carver
Abigail (Sierra Orr) and Carver (Carter Crosby) share a tender moment.

De Sanctis introduced a present-day interracial couple at the center of the story. As Abigail and Carver, who are engaged to be married, work on their wedding vows in their urban loft apartment, they explore their own pasts and grapple with their own identities as family legends and stories interrupt their idealized future.

“The history keeps interrupting them, but the future is on them,” De Sanctis said. “Abigail and Carver can’t change the past, but they can have a new future and stay in the room together.”

To honor both of their stories, De Sanctis spent a year interviewing interracial couples, her African American students and friends. And she visited The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

She also studied wedding vows — a suggestion from dramaturg Zachary Dorsey — and held readings in her living room and on her front porch.

“In Paul’s story, I saw the difference between being forced to come here and choosing to come here, the difference between having records of your family history and no evidence of your family history,” she said. “I saw the price of war on one side and the price of slavery on the other. I saw the beauty and the brokenness of our American story and explored one way to heal — the love between two people.”

De Sanctis and her students shared a 40-minute version of the play with Holland and a small audience during Homecoming in 2018. At that point, De Sanctis thought her work on the project was done. But it was only the beginning.

Holland and his wife, Linda Yates, wanted to see the play expanded and staged at JMU.

Walls talkback Holland Yates DeSanctis
Paul Holland discusses the play during a talkback session with the audience as his wife, Linda Yates (center), playwright Ingrid De Sanctis (right) and cast members look on.

“As a proud alum, this was the first place I thought of,” Holland said, citing the university’s strong performing arts program and the support of the dean, development officers and senior administrators, including President Jonathan R. Alger.

Walls: An American Story premiered Jan. 17-19 in the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts’ Studio Theatre. Holland and Yates helped finance the production and provided a generous gift to the Madison New Works Laboratory, an incubator within the School of Theatre and Dance for the development of new plays and musicals. The play was supported by a provost grant.

Written and directed by De Sanctis, Walls features an all-student cast, with senior Sierra Orr and junior Carter Crosby in the leading roles. Rehearsals began in September 2019, and the cast, crew and designers came back early from winter break to work 10 hours a day to prepare for the four weekend performances.  

Holland and Yates, who had not seen the expanded 75-minute version prior to the premiere, said they were “blown away.”

Yates was particularly impressed with the quality of the actors. “This is an original work,” she told them during a talk-back session with the audience after the Saturday matinee. “It’s not like it’s a musical or To Kill a Mockingbird that’s been done a thousand times and you can go back and watch how someone interpreted a scene or played a particular part. You all brought your own experiences to it. And that’s just incredible.”

De Sanctis said she was grateful for the opportunity “to meet and know and work with Paul and Linda, people of great passion and vision. They trusted me with this story, and that was an honor.”

“I’m beyond proud that this is an all-JMU production,” Holland said, “from the conception, all the way through to the premiere, and everything to come afterward. And it’s all the result of the magic of this university.”

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Published: Friday, January 31, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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