HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Virginia Repertory Theateris kicking off its 70th anniversary season with Broadway hit "Chicken and Biscuits" on Sept. 30.
It all started at Hanover Tavern, long before the Rep's managing director Phil Whiteway and co-founder Bruce Miller started working together 47 years ago.
“Virginia Repertory Theater was part of the two organizations that merged together in 2012. But one of those organizations was started right here in this historic Hanover Tavern. And that was the Barksdale Theater 1954,” Whiteway recalled.
Before the tavern became the Barksdale, it was a stomping ground for locals and travelers.
“It was a bar; it's on a major thoroughfare, of course, it wasn't a highway then... everything was horse and buggy," Whiteway said. "Patrick Henry is known to have tended bar here at the historic tavern. There are a lot of important historic figures that have utilized this beautiful facility.”
George Washington was also one of its visitors. It also attracted a group of New York actors who purchased the Historic Tavern in 1953. It became their home and a place to produce local theater.
“In order to bring in more people in, they decided to start serving food, so they literally became the first dinner theater in the nation," Whiteway said.
Pete Kilgore, Muriel McAuley and their friends also became civic leaders. They were the first performing arts organization to open its doors to an integrated audience. The theater opened with "Gold in the Hills" starring 16-year-old actress Sandy Wade Klein.
“If you have an exceptional memory you may remember me from the early days of Virginia Rep, so early it was called Barksdale Memorial Theater at Hanover Tavern," Klein recalled. "I appeared in seven shows there, including Barksdale's first production way back in 1954."
The Barksdale Theater and Theater Four joined forces in 2-12 and now operate as Virginia Repertory Theater.
Over the years, the theater has produced hundreds of shows and graduated talents like Tony nominee and Petersburg's Blair Underwood, Zach Knighton from "Magnum P.I." and a local favorite Desiree Roots.
“I'm in the season opener at November Theater in 'Chicken and Biscuits,'” Roots said.
The Broadway comedy opens on September 30.
Roots, who is no stranger to the theater, 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.
“It's going to be one of the new projects that we're doing next holiday season in an undisclosed location right now," Roots said. "We want it to be the same as 'The Nutcracker.' We want this to be something that is, you know, the yearly event to go to."
The the Rep will soon have a new location. While that announcement is expected in a few weeks, the celebration will continue through August 2023.
“Yeah, we're gonna basically spend the whole year celebrating our 70th anniversary,” Whiteway said.