Stage & Dance

Union College's one-woman theater department leaves a lasting legacy

Rebecca Pettys' office at Union College is now adorned with large images of herself earlier in her career that were made for her retirement celebration last month. She is retiring after 28 years.
Rebecca Pettys' office at Union College is now adorned with large images of herself earlier in her career that were made for her retirement celebration last month. She is retiring after 28 years. Lexington Herald-Leader

BARBOURVILLE — In 28 years as the theater professor at Union College, Rebecca Ansary Pettys has overseen hundreds of plays and even more student actors, and has functioned the entire time as a one-woman department.

Out of all that time and work, she says, her greatest accomplishment is this: "I wanted to help young people make the transition from living at home to going out into the cold, cruel world and standing on their own two feet — to mother them through it but to be a mother who also held their feet to the fire.

"You know, give a man a fish or teach him how to fish? I don't want to carry them across the pond. By golly, learn how to fish, and then you won't need me or your parents."

On Saturday, Pettys graduated her final group of seniors from the small Eastern Kentucky college, At 66, "Mama P.," as she is known on campus, is retiring and moving to Berea, the same place she came to in 1964 as an immigrant from Afghanistan to attend Berea College.

The oldest of three children, Pettys was born in Kabul to an Afghan father and an American mother. (Despite where she was born, Pettys has been a U.S. citizen since birth, thanks to her mother.)

"My father was one of the first young men sent to the States by the Afghan government to be educated abroad," Pettys says. "All of these young men, when they left Afghanistan, signed a piece of paper that said you're going to come back single. All of them came back married."

In Kabul, she was raised in traditional Afghan style, playing primarily with her cousins and her brother Tamim, who was two years younger than she, because Afghan families live in compounds and neighbor kids don't play with each other, Pettys says.

Theater was not part of her life. "It was not considered honorable," Pettys says. While she was pursuing a doctorate in theater at Indiana University, her father would not tell people what she was studying.

Pettys says that the Afghanistan she grew up in was nothing like the war-torn country it is now. She was a child during what was considered a golden era of the Central Asian nation, when there was peace, education and a working government.

Even so, when she moved to the United States for college, "I knew I wasn't going back to Afghanistan," she says.

She intended to become an author, with ambitions of being the Pearl S. Buck of Afghanistan, but she quickly got involved in theater. She was mentored, with several other students — including Eddie Kennedy, who now directs Berea Arena Theatre — by Paul Power. When she earned her doctorate from Indiana (her dissertation was on the Ta'ziyeh, an Iranian passion play), she hoped to follow in his footsteps.

"I wanted to come back to Kentucky, because for me, it's my home state," Pettys says. "I wanted to work at a liberal arts, church-related college — even though I'm Muslim — ... in other words, as close to Berea as I could get. I wanted to build sets and direct shows and teach all the courses."

She found that opportunity at Union, a 1,200-student, United Methodist-affiliated school in Barbourville, a town of about 3,500 people 15 miles east of Corbin.

The program was on the skids — there were no theater majors — so she had to build it back up in terms of students participating in shows and majoring in in theater.

Joining her was her husband, Bob Pettys, "the love of my life," she says. They met in Berea and moved around. When they came to Barbourville, he taught business administration in the college and helped run the theater, doing everything from building sets to running the box office. He died in 1994 from pancreatic cancer.

Serving such a small area, the school's shows often played to audiences from the community and the campus. That has kept her conscious that she is catering to a conservative area, so she has been careful with what she chooses to stage, she says.

"We know there are certain words you can't say on stage, so we haven't done Glengarry Glen Ross, because there wouldn't be anything left for them to say," she says.

But she has put up some challenging shows, including Jane Martin's Talking With ..., a series of monologues of women talking about their lives that includes some harsh dialogue.

Pettys' bigger concern, though, has been programming shows that give the most students a chance to be on stage, even though she occasionally has to beat the bushes for actors.

While she pursued her career in theater, the Pettys family became far flung. Both her parents have died. Her brother Tamim Ansary lives in San Francisco and is the celebrated author of 2003's West of Kabul, East of New York, a memoir about his experiences having one foot in Afghan culture and one in America. Their youngest brother, Riaz Ansary, lives in Malaysia.

Pettys considers herself a small-town American.

"I'm very happy living here, happy that I am known at the post office," Pettys says. "I'm happy to be the widow of Bob Pettys and that there are people here who knew him and know that he was the love of my life."

That, she says, is why she is moving only an hour's drive up the road. It would be difficult, she says, to live in Barbourville and not be part of Union's theater program. But she doesn't want to be too far away.

As something of a parting gift to the school, she raised money to replace the seats in Union's Rector Little Theatre, where plays are staged. Since before she arrived in 1984, the seats had been old movie theater seats that were starting to break.

"It is time for me to retire," she says. "I am proud of what I have done, but it is time for someone else to come in and do stuff."

A search for her successor is ongoing, she said.

Pettys says she is proud of a lot of what has happened on the stage and that she is leaving the program better than when she found it. But the students and the impact she has had on them have been most important to her.

"You can't have a more satisfying life than that," she says, "by doing what you set out to do."