When I first found out about Our War at Arena Stage, I was fascinated. The production is massive in scale, a conglomeration of monologues about and reacting to the Civil War, spanning more than 100 years over 25 monologues, each written by a different playwright.
These playwrights are from all over the country, including luminaries like Ken Ludwig, David Lindsey Abair, Lynn Nottage, and other lesser known but amazingly talented artists. I wanted to capture a picture of this project on all of its levels, from the huge organization of all of these moving parts to the actors that perform in them to the in-depth work of the playwrights on each individual monologue. With that in mind, I talked with the director of the project, Anita Maynard-Losh, only a week or so into the rehearsal process, to get an overview of what this play is all about.
Alan Katz: Who are you and what have you been up to?
Anita Maynard-Losh: I’m a director, also I work at Arena Stage as Director of Community Engagement, as well as being on the artistic team there and on the senior staff. I’m an old friend of Molly Smith [Arena’s Artistic Director]. We met in 1979. I worked at Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska. I’m from San Fransisco. I have 3 children. I have a great job. This is a great opportunity for me because I love new work, and I love working with actors. This is a combination of all of those things.
AK: This is a big combination, with lots of moving pieces, and you have to be the one to make all of those moving pieces move together.
AML: It’s very exciting that way. We have 25 playwrights, some of the most exciting contemporary playwrights around, which is a gift to us. They have this charge, which was to write something in response to the Civil War. So not something necessarily about the Civil War, just in response to it. That’s what’s very exciting about it: we get some pieces with a Civil War setting, but the vast majority of them are contemporary pieces investigating the ramifications or connections to the Civil War. Because a majority of the playwrights are people of color, we get to hear points of view that we don’t traditionally hear about the Civil War or its effects. It made me really interested in the question of who controls the historic narrative. When I say Civil War, a certain image comes to mind, and who got to pick what that image is? In most cases, it is whoever is dominant at the time, dominant culture, dominant gender. I like to think of the Civil War as this rock that’s dropped into a pond, and we’re used to seeing the ripples from a certain vantage point. This piece let’s us take a trip around the pond to see those ripples from a different perspective.
AK: Coming into this project, what was your image of the Civil War and how has it changed?
AML: When I think Civil War, I get the brother against brother, gray vs blue, North against South, for lack of a better image of White guys fighting each. Those black and white images of the battlefield. When I was a child growing up in San Francisco, the Civil War was not only historically distant, it was also geographically distant.
It’s very different living here. Hearing “The weather in Manassas” or “The traffic in Fredricksburg.” In San Francisco, those places were as far away as the moon. But here it’s different. Getting involved in this, the connections that these playwrights feel to the Civil War, or the way they feel the Civil war is still rippling. I hadn’t thought about that before. There’s three pieces about citizenship, how you earn citizenship and if you can earn citizenship, so they went through issues of immigration. We have three Native American playwrights. The Native American experience throughout the Civil War is fascinating, but not one we hear much about. We have pieces that look at Abraham Lincoln through different points of view. Our War opens up the subject in a way I find fascinating.
AK: Somewhat related to that, with all of these monologues, the structure of this play is very different from a normal play, right?
AML: Because it isn’t a traditional play structure, it’s a challenge to the actors and to the audience, too. You aren’t going to follow Ma and Pa and the kids on this journey. Its not a group of characters that we follow in a particular dramatic arc, then it resolves at the end in catharsis or whatever. The emotional impact is based on the cumulative effect of all of these insights into these specific human beings that the playwrights have created or expressed over a much shorter period of time.
In terms of how to direct it, I look at it as an ensemble piece, which may seem counterintuitive because its all these monologues which are you know, mono. I have six amazing actors who bring a lot of talent and transformational ability to it. They then will transform from character to character to character. They will all be onstage the entire time. They’ll help create the environment of the scene. They will all be present for each of the pieces, even if they aren’t, for example, someone there to talk to, they will still be supporting each of the pieces with their energy. Nobody is running offstage to change into a hoop skirt and come on as someone different. They will be transforming onstage with the things that actors have to offer, which are their bodies and their voices and their spirits. We get to see that and participate in that.
AK: Are there things that an audience member should know going into Our War?
AML: One of the things that’s unusual about this show is these notables. Washington, DC doers and thinkers. Every night there will be a couple of people who are not actors, significant people in DC and the life of the United States, who will come onstage and read some monologues. [The list of guests is here.]Each night is going to be a little bit different. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes on (she’s chosen a monologue by David Lindsey Abaire), the regular actor who would perform that monologue will defer to her. So that is something that is unique about Our War. The website has information about who is on each night. But every night there will be one or two guests, but since the notables get to choose their monologues, the next night the guests might choose different monologues to perform. Different every night.
Another exciting thing is that for some of these issues that are talked about in these monologues, these notables can have a real-world impact on some of these issues.
AK: That’s incredibly cool. Let’s wrap up with a game called Gallery. I want you to imagine that you are in an art gallery. It’s a gallery that has a painting for each play that you’ve done in your life, as an actor, director, or as Director of Community Engagement. You go down the hall, starting with high school or college, advancing in time as you go on. At the end of the gallery, there’s the painting for Our War. What does it look like?
AML: I don’t see it as a realistic painting. I see it as color and shape, more of an abstract painting, with a lot of red in it. And diagonal lines. But very colorful, lots of different colors, but diagonal lines and little explosions of red.
After speaking with Anita, I knew that the actors were in for a tough assignment, and that they would each have an interesting and unique slice of this play that they’ve been working on. John Lescault, longtime veteran of the stage in DC, was the perfect candidate for that discussion. He was able to share some of his personal experiences and insights into the play with his typical intelligent precision.
AK: Who are you?
Jon Lescault: I’m a 56 year old actor; I live in Silver Spring, Maryland. I work in the DC Theatre scene and have done so for the last 34 years. I came to Catholic [University of America] in 1976 and then stayed.
AK: What have you been up to?
JL: I’ve been working on Our War at Arena Stage. The journey’s been a unique one. I can say I’ve never taken on a project quite like this. Although, I’m no stranger to the new play. But this is unique because there are 25 new plays. Rather than there being one unifying voice, there are 25 who are giving us a fascinating prism of the Civil War, its effect at its time, and its long-lasting reach today. My contribution, along with 5 other actors, is 4 monologues. That’s exciting, to be able to take on 4 different characters. Then there’s one ensemble piece called “Questions for a Union Soldier”
AK: Do you perform them all in one night? That seems like a lot of material…
JL: Because there’s been such a wealth of material coming in from these authors, we now have two different evening of theater: a “Stars” evening and a “Stripes” evening. Eighteen monologues per night, some will appear in both programs, some will be exclusive to a particular night.
AK: How did you get involved with the project?
JL: Anita called and offered me the role, and I can’t say no to Anita or Arena. My trust in her was so great that I accepted the role without reading it, which I never do. But my trust was absolute, and what I’ve been handed is great material, so it was the right choice.
AK: Tell me about some of those characters you’ve been developing from that material.
JL: Sure. Ken Ludwig has written a piece called “A Cause For Laughter,” taken from the life of a man named Isaac Arnold, who was a Republican congressman from Illinois from 1860-1864. He was someone who knew Lincoln well, going back to their days in Chicago. He reflects on his time with Lincoln and the great sense of humor he had.
Another is by Naomi Iizuka, she has written a piece called “Union Soldier Writes a Letter to the Mother of a Boy He Used to Know.” The title really expresses it all: a Union soldier who’s reflecting back on his time at the battle of Shiloh, which was a real wake up call to how violent this war was going to be in a way that neither side had anticipated. Just awful. A letter written to a dead friend’s mother.
The third is written by Betty Shamieh, “A Tale of Two Johns,” which is a monologue by John Wilkes Booth himself! The other John is John Brown. It is very interesting that Booth was at Brown’s execution. Booth took a lot away with him that day, saw how Brown went to his death willing to die a martyr, in a courageous fashion. That would go on to influence Booth to do what he did years later. In a weird way, it’s a role that followed me. I played John Wilkes Booth in an Unsolved Mysteries episode in 1992.
The last piece is “The Homesteader” by Samuel D. Hunter, author of Boise, and his monologue is set in Idaho as well. We’re in a contemporary setting, at the opening of Barton Plaza in Idaho’s 7th largest shopping destination. I am there as a representative of the Barton family: my great-great grandfather, Robert Barton, founded this town and fought in the Civil War. The contemporary setting is true of a lot of pieces, where the monologue really deals with the ramifications of the Civil War today, rather than the time of the war.
AK: How are these monologues working in the rehearsal room? What’s the structure of the day?
JL: Let’s say I’ve learned something about Booth that’s been bubbling away in my brain. Then I’ll say, “Hey Anita, Booth did such-and-such. I think it applies to this moment.” She’ll say, “Great! Let’s try it!” I’ll try it and either she or I will say, “Welp, that was shit.” Or it’ll be great and we’ll keep it. It is like building a mosaic, adding each moment like a piece of a puzzle, either from historical record or the wellspring of creativity. One thing about these monologues is that there’s only a set amount of time to have that 3 dimensional character. You have to hit the ground running, you don’t have two hours to get there, no missteps.
AK: What are the big challenges for you as an actor for these pieces?
JL: The next big challenge is adding the audience, listening and learning from them. When you’re doing a monologue, your scene partner oftentimes is the audience, and they’re a big part of the give and take.
AK: Then what do you want to get from your audience? What are you anticipating bouncing back to you?
JL: Laughter in the funny places [laughs]. But even more than laughter, I’ve come to appreciate silence. When an idea gets dropped and you can feel it sink in. I think it was Brecht who said that we get an audience laughing, then we stick in an idea. Some of these pieces are like that with humor and meaty ideas. Because this war was so involving in all walks of American life, we’re hoping to touch and create a sense of empathy to change our minds about a person, or rethink the way we think. Maybe take away some fresh perspective on the Civil War and how it has shaped our lives today.
AK: I’d like you to think about being in an Art gallery with an exhibit called Our War, and each of the 4 monologues you’re doing has a painting in that exhibition. Can you tell me what those paintings are of and what they look like?
JL: “The Union Soldier” is a pastoral painting, done by Turner. We would see two soldiers on a glorified battlefield in those beautiful Turner colors.
John Wilkes booth would be in daguerrotype. Rather stern, but handsome in a kind of way.
Isaac Arnold would be a portrait in the 19th century fashion, not unlike what you might find in the halls of Congress. White Collar, gray beard, spectacles.
Gary Barton of “The Homesteader” might be like a Richard Estes paintings, though Estes rarely has human figures in his paintings. If he does, he would be perfect for the photorealism of the opening of the plaza in Pocatello.
Our War’s painting would have every art style from American history, from its founding to today. It would be a mosaic, a quilt, with color and image and figure, it would all be there. An American Guernica.
That’s particularly poignant here in Washington. We’re not performing this play anywhere else. The 7th Street docks, just blocks away from Arena is where troops were deployed from. Fort Stevens on 13th street was where Lincoln was shot at. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a lieutenant at the time, allegedly shouted, “Get down, you damn fool!” I try to keep that spirit alive as I drive down there. Sometimes I shout out the window, “Get down, you damn fool!” Even if people think I’m crazy, it is all around us. Lincoln was 6’4” with a top hat, standing on top of a battlement while a skirmish was happening. Right here.
I spent a couple summers out at CATF in Shepherdstown. The history is alive there, too. The locals told me that it isn’t uncommon, when adding onto a house, when there’s excavation done around an antebellum home, that they’ll find human remains. Because of the surgery that happened there after the battle of Antietam. The dogs would run off with a limb and bury under a porch. It’s not uncommon that the dead are found in Shepherdstown. That’s part of living where we live. It’s a deep experience and an honor to be a part of this production.
John gave me an idea of the sheer variety of these monologues, and understanding that this is going to be something more than a Ken Burns documentary, something active in the present and urgent. It happens that one of the playwrights for Our War is actually a documentarian who has shifted her gears from her documentary endeavors to a poetic monologue that is rooted in history, but is essentially a creative piece carrying a message about the unfinished business of the Civil War. I got to talk to this playwright, Maria Agui Carter, about her monologue “Fourteen Freight Trains,” and the passion for present political and social crises in America that lead her to create her poetic work about the Civil War that has present impact.
AK: Who are you and what have you been up to?
Maria Agui Carter: I’m a film writer and director. I’ve made many films for PBS and cable. That’s possibly why I was contacted for this project. I made a film called Rebel, which won the 2014 Erik Barnouw award and aired on PBS. It’s about the erased history of a Cuban woman who fought in the American Civil War as a man and a soldier for the Confederacy, then became a Union spy. For Our War, I was invited to write something about the Civil War, but what I wrote was up to me.
I’d been thinking about the unfinished business of the Civil War, which I think is really about Civil Rights, really about the right of African Americans to participate as citizens. When I think about that unfinished business which links the Civil War to moments today, like Ferguson, or how we see Black and Brown in America, and how we decide who has the right of citizenship. Is citizenship an accident of birth?
I arrived here as an undocumented child when I was 7. To me citizenship was a choice, and it was my great love of this country that lead me to that choice after gaining permanent residency when my mother married an American citizen. That was the year I got into Harvard, after being an undocumented resident my whole life, growing up underground. I’ve grown up feeling American, but always being a liminal character in American society because of that underground existence. I love this country, and I feel deeply American. That was the question that I want to explore through this character of a ghost of an American soldier returning to Civil War battlefields, thinking about that long line of people who have chosen to fight for the ideals that this country stands for.
AK: Tell me about this character. How does your background get distilled into this character?
MAC: I remember reading the reports of the first people to die in the [most recent] Iraq War. I remember reading about Jose Gutierrez, one of the first to die as a US soldier. I had been aware of US Army recruitment efforts around Latinos and a special dispensation to apply for citizenship for residents who joined the Army. I also remember Jessica Lynch coming back, that pert beautiful blonde girl who was saved. She’d been wounded and was rescued. She ended up being on the cover of People Magazine and they made a movie of the week about her.
I also knew about the other soldiers that came back with her in body bags, there was a woman among them. Her name was Lori Piestewa, a Native America Latina single mom, who was the driver of the truck that was hit and captured. I remember thinking, “Who’s story do we choose to tell and who’s do we gloss over? Who do we choose and not choose to represent our country?” When I think about the legacy of the Civil War, I think of the unfinished business of the granting rights to all citizens, that all Americans should be eligible for the freedoms that this democracy affords White Americans. I wanted to explore this question of a Latino soldier returning to Civil War battlefields.
In the case of Jose Gutierrez, he was an undocumented, unaccompanied minor who arrived in LA. He grew up with foster families and eventually became a citizen. When September 11th happened, he joined the Marines. He had a representative story that I felt could stand for this larger story that I was interested in exploring.
AK: How did you go about going from that seed of an idea to fleshing this monologue out?
MAC: Well, it’s not a documentary, a creative endeavor. It’s based on this kernel of a story that then was fleshed out. I knew that he was poetic because I saw from obituaries that some of his poems were read at his funeral. I knew his voice could hold with some truth a poetic and rhythmic monologue. I wanted to create a formal piece that could be performed and have rhythm.
Artistically, I was looking for a mesmerizing monologue that would have parallel structure and repetition. Also, it is a form of roll call of names from history, especially because there’s been so much silence surrounding Latino participation in what I think is the ultimate sacrifice, willingness to put your life on the line for advancing democracy. It links the present to the past. I started writing this before the influx of unaccompanied minors coming to our borders from Central America and Mexico. I think not only about the push from those countries, but also the pull, our complicity in that. How we treat them. Yet here is someone who was one of these children and he gave up his life for the US. It is a question of “How many lives do we lose before you consider us Americans too?”
I don’t have all the answers. I’m an artist; I ask questions. What it means to be an artist is, as Akira Kurasowa said, “never to avert one’s eyes.” I think of what I do is forcing audiences to look at these issues and then we as an American democracy have to decide what to do.
AK: What’s the process been for you, being from Boston and not in the rehearsal room?
Closes November 9, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington
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MAC: This is my first time writing a play. I’m a scriptwriter, but for films. The process was incredible. I began to work with Arena’s dramaturg Jocelyn [Clarke], who has been amazing. He would read my piece and then we would Skype. He asked me what I wanted to get across, and we went back and forth. He never suggested actual words or rewriting, but through his coaching he helped clarify and streamline my ideas. Since I’m used to directing what I write, in the script you can see, as Jocelyn joked, that the footnotes are longer than the piece. Whenever I was referring to a real event I wrote a note to let the actor and the director know what I was referring to. But the beauty of a play is that it is teamwork. The production is only possible through all of these people who bring their A game. I’m delighted because it means that other people bring their incredible creativity to it. They’ll make it their own and every time it is performed it’ll be a little different. I’m so excited to see it live, and I’m deeply honored to be part of these 25 voices.
AK: I want you to imagine you’re in an art gallery. And there’s a painting in there that’s a painting of your monologue. I want you to tell me what it looks like.
MAC: It’s a freight train. There are children on top of it in the open air. The train is speeding through the mountains and the valleys. The children are all tangled up on top, leaning in various directions, kind of dangerously. And the children are every color, and they’re coming from the Americas. They’ve created their own Overground Railway, like the Underground Railway that brought African Americans to freedom. So these children are seeking better circumstances and trying to be a part of this American democracy.