Published: November 27, 2011
Developer Moses Hofheimer and playwright George Bernard Shaw never met in 1911 when Moses was building the Empire Theatre in Richmond and Shaw was completing the play “Pygmalion” in England. Now, 100 years later, Barksdale Theatre is bringing the two men and their achievements together in celebration.
“When I was picking the show to celebrate the Empire’s 100th anniversary, I discovered that ‘My Fair Lady,’ which is based on ‘Pygmalion,’ was written at the same time as the opening of the Empire,” said Bruce Miller, artistic director for Barksdale/Theatre IV.
When he began researching Hofheimer and Shaw, Miller also found that both shared the desire to rally against class barriers that were present in their respective locales. In Richmond, Hofheimer decided to build the Empire as an entranceway to Jackson Ward, the largest black community in Richmond during the segregated early 1900s.
The Dec. 25, 1911, opening of the Empire at 114 W. Broad St. in downtown marked a first in the history of Richmond theater.
“Hofheimer built the theater with a separate entrance that led to a separate balcony for African-Americans,” Miller said. “When it opened, there were African-American and white audiences sitting in the same building. (That) was important to him.” …
Eliza Doolittle, the main character in the play, lives in poverty as a flower girl until she meets professor Henry Higgins, a linguist. Higgins bets he can transform the ragged young miss into a society lady by polishing her elocution.
Miller sees a similarity in the transformation of the Empire.
“We are scrubbing off some of the dirt and grime so everyone can see the treasures that live underneath, whether you apply that to Eliza Doolittle or the Empire,” he said. “We are in the midst of restoring dignity to this treasured theater so Richmonders can see it for the landmark it truly is in the same way Eliza gains dignity for herself under Higgins so London society can see her for who she is.”
The production of “My Fair Lady,” which runs to Jan. 8 at the Empire, features an all-Richmond cast; the past two musicals produced by Barksdale had cast members from out of town.
“This is a very Richmond event,” Miller said. “We wanted it to be a Richmond cast.”