The moment the lights dim at Hunger & Thirst Theatre Collective’s Contrafact of Freedom, the audience is ferried to early 19th century Maryland where Francis Scott Key is on the cusp of writing the most famous song in American history.
As the war of 1812 starts, Key is a simple country lawyer who holds singing parties with friend Dr. Beanes, and pens an occasional poem such as “The Worm’s Death-Song,” about, you guessed it, a dying worm.
Circumstances change quickly as his peers join the war effort and the happily apolitical Key is forced to the front lines as a quartermaster. Key, a lover not a fighter, struggles to understand the bloodshed he witnesses as the American militia loses the Battle of Bladensburg and British troops storm the capital.
He is about to flee with his family to safer ground when he learns that the British have captured his friend Dr. Beanes and he must argue for his release. The negotiations take place abroad the H.M.S. Tonnant which is anchored in Chesapeake Bay on the eve of the Battle of Baltimore. While Key is successful in releasing Beane, they can’t leave and must stay tethered to the Tonnant as the British launch cannons at Fort McHenry.
The rest is the stuff of legend and debate: Key watches the battle from offshore, and is heartened when he hears “Yankee Doodle Dandy” indicating that the American militia were not defeated. Huzzah! So inspired is Key that he immediately pens a poem that would eventually become “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Director Sarah Hankins and costume designer Jessa-Raye Court have created both a traditional and modern presentation of Alex Pappas’ incredibly well researched script. The actors conduct makeup and costume changes at the right and left sides of the stage in plain view of the audience. It’s also here that the actors brilliantly mimic cannons in the battle using makeshift drums.
Contrafact of Freedom
by Alex Pappas
at Lab II – Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
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There’s no shortage of laughs in Contrafact of Freedom. At one point Key’s brother-in-law Roger (Titus Tompkins) says: “We need a full standing army, but Americans will never agree to pay taxes.” However it’s the sobering moments that really show the depth of Pappas’ script.
J.C. Ernst, who plays British General Robert Ross and American militiaman Nicholls, delivers some of the strongest lines in the play as he berates Key and other gentleman soldiers who come and go from the front as they please, while poor foot soldiers are killed. As Ross, Ernst also tellingly reminds Key that while the United States wants to maintain independence, it still buys and sells slaves.
One of the most enjoyable themes in Contrafact of Freedom is its exploration of what constitutes a national anthem, and musical director Matthew Ellis Murphy did a fine job presenting the songs in the play.
Most Americans don’t know that the melody behind the “Star Spangled Banner” has its origins in the old drinking song “The Anacreontic Song” sung at The Anacreontic Society, a London men’s club. In Key’s time many considered “Yankee Doodle Dandy” an anthem, but ultimately the group settles on singing “Hail, Columbia” a song written for George Washington’s inauguration.
A contrafact is defined as a new song that is based on an old melody. Through a discussion of music and anthems, Pappas has deftly shown how every new struggle, such as the fight to maintain American independence, is actually an old one.