The Crucible then and now

Recollections from the performers in University Theatre’s first production

<span style="">The Crucible</span> in 1956 (above) and 2006 (below).

The Crucible in 1956 (above) and 2006 (below).

Visit the current production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at California State University, Sacramento, and in the lobby you will find archival photos of the February 1956 production of the same play in the same venue. It was the first show in the University Theatre, then a brand-new building.

Look closely at the cast photo from 50 years ago, and you’ll see an actress playing Tituba, a slave from the Caribbean. “She was a white girl, made up in blackface,” recalled Jane Kempster, who played the role of Elizabeth Proctor in ’56. Kempster now lives in the eastern United States, but attended opening night of the current production. “In this year’s production, they didn’t do [blackface],” Kempster said. Gina Kaufmann, director of the current production, told SN&R she never considered putting blackface on the white actress who played Tituba this time.

In ’56, The Crucible was still a relatively new play, having premiered on Broadway three years earlier. Although Miller’s script depicts events surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692, the play has always been interpreted as a commentary on Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for American communists in the early 1950s. In ’56, McCarthy was still a senator from Wisconsin—though largely discredited after the Senate voted to condemn him in 1954. Vice President Richard Nixon also had risen to power by slinging accusations of Communist sympathies against his political opponents.

All of which gave the college’s original production of The Crucible some political zing. “It was the first Sacramento production [of the play], during a very controversial period. The theater department has always been a little daring,” said Patricia Shebert, a student on the backstage crew in ’56. She added that, as college students, “I don’t think a lot of us were aware of the political implications.”

Another ’56 cast member, Emily Valencia, recalled that most of the cast was in high school during McCarthy’s famous hearings in 1953 and 1954. “We were aware of that, but you know, two years is a long time in a 20-year-old person’s life,” Valencia said.

Larry Shumate was the new technical director in the CSUS theater department in ’56, still finishing his master’s degree. Shumate recalled that the new theater had a gaudy color scheme—lots of pink—which made it feel “more like a circus” than a setting for a moral drama with historical implications. (The colors were muted during subsequent remodeling.)

“There wasn’t much theater in Sacramento then,” Shumate added. “There was Music Circus in the summer. There was The Eaglet.” A favorite project of Bee publisher Eleanor McClatchy, the Eaglet is now the Sacramento Theatre Company. “There was the main auditorium [at Sacramento City College], which had been a WPA project in the ’30s.”

“Back then, you dressed up to go to the theater,” Shumate explained. “It was a tie-and-coat thing for the guys.” Many women wore hats and gloves, even to college productions.

Shumate also recalled that in ’56, CSUS planned to build an even larger auditorium next to the new theater, which was then called the “Little Theatre.”

“Then Sputnik went up,” Shumate said. Shocked that the Soviets had launched an artificial satellite first, America shifted significant academic resources toward catching up. “They took all the money and put it in the science building!” Shumate said.

Several people involved in that ’56 production went on to interesting careers. Shumate finished his master’s degree and became a CSUS faculty member. (He’s since retired.) Shebert became the CSUS box-office manager, a job she held for 12 years, and she won second place in an SN&R-sponsored fiction-writing contest during this newspaper’s early years. And, after the Episcopalians began ordaining women in the 1970s, Kempster became an Anglican priest, serving as the rector of a church in North Carolina—something that wasn’t even an option when she was a college student in Sacramento during the 1950s.