“Doesn’t the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in an American theater make everything else that’s ever happened in an American theater before or since seem kinda trivial?”
That’s one of the Questions for a Union Soldier from Dan LeFranc (writer of The Big Meal and Sixty Miles to Silver Lake) in the only ensemble piece in a night of monologues called Our War at Arena Stage. There’s a few events in American theater that don’t seem trivial compared to the assassination of Lincoln: some Federal Theater Project plays (like the nationwide It Can’t Happen Here) or Paul Robeson’s Othello or even the playing of Master Harold…and the Boys that raised American consciousness of apartheid.
But LeFranc has a point, not that American theater isn’t significant, but that we should strive for significance. American theater should strive to use the hammer of bodies and the anvil of words to forge our histories into a force that shapes the present. I know so many people who work in theater because they experienced that power; it took hold of their soul, shook them, and changed them. They suffer the difficulties of an artist’s life or half-life because they envision the power to change the world, one audience member at a time. How lucky are the people that get that payoff, but many never will. The important thing is that we strive for change, believing that the representation of reality can change reality.
This is all to say that Our War is a play project that works to reshape our remembered history to challenge and change us, as Americans, today. The project is far from trivial, from a logistics standpoint: 25 playwrights (among them Helen Hayes, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Genius Grant, and Tony Award winners) were commissioned to write a monologue, each with the direction that it be related to the Civil War. Not about the Civil War, or even set in the Civil War, just related to it. The vagueness of the commission frightened me a bit when I first heard about it. What if they all come back wildly different? What if it is impossible to create a cohesive night of theater from them? Even worse, what if they’re all the same?
Thanks to director Anita Maynard-Losh and dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke, the pieces are cohesive (but varied) and positioned throughout the evening to crest emotionally just as the performance is about to end. While each of the pieces are unique, the playwrights inevitably explore a few general categories that are then varied to create changes in the tone and texture of the whole.
In the first major category are plays that look back into the Civil War with the eyes of today, and that is exactly how the evening begins, though somewhat unexpectedly. John Strand’s The Truth, Revealed is the title of a 10 year old’s Confederate-sympathizing presentation on the Civil War, or, as she terms it (as do many Southerners, by the way), the War for Southern Independence. The audience was hesitant to laugh at first, waiting to be punished for snarking at Southern ideas, but the piece ends up being a condemnation of present day pro-Confederacy opinions, essentially saying that that kind of logic only holds water with a 10 year old.
Even so, very appropriately for Washington audiences, neither Strand’s 10 year old nor Our War as a whole pull intellectual punches. Don’t know much about the Civil War or the present-day cultural schism between the conservative South and liberal North? Strap in and pay attention for once, because Our War is a bus that isn’t going to wait for you. Other plays that look back on the Civil War with the eyes of today challenge in different ways: like Charles Randolph-Wright telling the story of how his family’s name was adopted that challenges Black Americans to look back on their past with respect or Samuel D. Hunter’s The Homesteader that insists that Whites do the same or Diane Glancy’s plea for the remembrance of native participation in the Civil War.
The bulk of the performances take a different tack and the more expected one for audience who come to see a play “about the Civil War.” These plays look at the Civil War from the perspective of those who were there, and no two perspectives are the same. Tanya Saracho’s transgender soldier in an insane asylum. Naomi Iizuka’s Irishman remembering a fallen comrade. Lynn Nottage’s remembrance of a former slave and how he used his wits to survive. There are more besides, but each of these stories is lovingly crafted to create a precise impression of time and place.
Despite historical anecdotes forming the plurality of the night, Our War is not a Ken Burns-type production. You won’t be assaulted with facts (except for maybe in the first monologue) and your eyes won’t get a chance to glaze over. The stories are discrete and there won’t be any recurring characters. If you don’t like a monologue, don’t worry because it will be over in less than 5 minutes. That probably won’t happen, though. The only monologue I had difficulty remembering was Nicholas Ong’s Angels of the Battlefield, written as a part of the net cast by Arena to seek out monologues from a variety of sources. But Ong held his own in the company of some of the best living playwrights in the world. It isn’t his fault (and his work doesn’t suffer because) he doesn’t quite have the polish of Lynn Nottage or Ken Ludwig.
While the plays that took the perspective of participants were some of the most crisp, the last kind of play in the evening, plays that look at today with the eyes of the present (but through the lens or with the lighting of the Civil War), hit the hardest. Most of them use the Civil War as a way to talk about race in America, from Ken Narasaki’s thoughts on racism that isn’t divided into Black and White to Lydia Diamond’s chastisement of White liberal guilt.
But some of these plays of the third kind penetrate other issues. Heather Raffo’s Times Have Changed is one of the more surprising monologues of the night, presenting the perspective of Michelle Knight, who was held captive in a Cleveland home for years. Maria Agui Carter looks at the Civil War as a fight for citizenship and brings in the voice of Jose Gutierrez, the first casualty of the second Iraq War, who was once an undocumented immigrant. Each of these monologues show us how we can’t get away from the issues of the Civil War, whether or not we’re talking about race or history. They show us the immediate power that our past holds over us, and how the same battles that once soaked American soil with American blood still rage on in the conflicts within our culture.
The stage itself couches that conflict with American symbolism. A giant stylized flag serves as the backdrop, and even the rarely-used podiums seem as if they are made of stripes from a flag. Lit consistently, if unnoticeably, and with clarity, the most visual flair comes from projections onto the flag. That was a good enough idea, but the execution was off. Each monologue was given a title screen, usually accompanied by some significant symbol related to the monologue. This technique was effective until the pattern was broken by unreadable text drifting about distractingly during a monologue and, at another time, the dreaded frantic mouse movement and harsh window reset of a botched cue. My guess is that this will smooth out with time. Mostly, the symbolism of the projection did wonders to focus attention and gave the audience an anchor to follow the constantly shifting monologues.
The main part of the stage is drenched in symbolism, too. It is made of blocks of mismatching stone, creating multiple levels and parts, but looking like a multitude of disparate parts being constructed into a monolith, E pluribus unum.
The actors reflect these different parts, not only through racial diversity, but through technique. John Lescault’s classic and declarative style contrasts with Kelly Armstrong’s relaxed and naturalistic delivery contrasts with Lynette Rathnam’s admirable ability to melt into a character. Tuyet Thi Pham has an energetic, almost hypertense form that drives pace well while Ricardo Frederick Evans has a patient art of timing that reminds me of very good slam poetry. Sara Waisanen rounds out the cast with nice variation in tempo and an excellent display of the ever-elusive range that so many actors try for, but few succeed in finding.
I will mention that these won’t be the only performers you see when you go to Our War. Each night different Washingtonians with political, business or cultural influence will take the stage and perform a monologue that they have selected. I had the privilege of seeing Madame Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg perform That Boy by David Lindsey Abaire. Her direct style, honed from years of oral arguments (which I listen to, because I’m a Constitution fanboy), suited the tale of a mother waiting for her son to return from war, though it is clear he never will. Her age and poise played well for the part, contrasting well with the relatively youthful cast, and she made me believe that she could have been waiting on a lost child for years.
In the most different piece of them all, Questions for a Union Soldier, which is not a monologue, not a story, not a parable about racial strife, Dan LeFranc asks “Do you think it’s clear to the audience by now that this will probably not be their favorite play of the night? Or are they waiting for this play to reassert the value of this play, of plays in general, of art, in the face of enormous cataclysmic events like war and slavery and assassination?”
Well, Dan, I’m not going to wait, not in the face of cataclysmic events that still happen every day. I’m going to keep going to the theater to discover and rediscover its power to shape the world. I’m going to find and find again a knowledge that what can change and unlock and enlighten one human soul can do that for a nation or a world. I think questions like you and Our War ask are the start to that path. That’s why your play was my favorite of the night, and Our War is one of my favorite plays this season.
There are two versions of Our War: “Stars” and “Stripes.” I saw the “Stars” version. The first half of both of the versions is the same, but, at the midpoint right after Questions for a Union Soldier, the following 7 plays are switched for others (more than a third of the evening is different). Both nights finish the same with Lynn Nottage’s The Grey Rooster and Lydia Diamond’s Addressing, which are a powerful jab/cross combination that helps give the evening shape.
Our War written by: Maria Agui Carter, Lydia Diamond, Amy Freed, Diane Glancy, Joy Harjo, Samuel D. Hunter, Naomi Iizuka, Aditi Kapil, Dan LeFranc, David Lindsay-Abaire, Ken Ludwig, Taylor Mac, Ken Narasaki, Lynn Nottage, Robert O’Hara, Heather Raffo, Charles Randolph-Wright, Tanya Saracho, Betty Shamieh, John Strand, Tazewell Thompson, William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., Karen Zacarías and two students from George Washington University: Zinhle Essamuah and Nicholas Ong . Directed by Anita Maynard-Losh
Featuring Kelly Renee Armstrong, Ricardo Frederick Evans, John Lescault, Tuyet Pham, Lynette Rathnam, and Sara Waisanen .
Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clarke . Set Designer: Robbie Hayes . Costume Designer: T. Tyler Stumpf . Lighting Designer: Catherine Girardi . Sound Designer: Elisheba Itoop . Stage Manager: Kurt Hall . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Alan Katz.
Closes Nov 9
Alan Katz . DCTheatreScene a resounding success
Tanya Pai . Washingtonian The show, as a whole, works quite well, and is often surprisingly funny
Terry Ponick . DigiNews is stubbornly single-minded when it comes to exploring history and thought. It’s a missed opportunity
Barbara Mackay . Theatermania successful at intelligently and sensitively offering new perspectives on one of the most important eras of American history.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post the general collection doesn’t transcend the gimmick of the concept.
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway this audacious theatrical experiment is, for the most part, a success.
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld nothing if not ambitious.
Sophia Howe . DCMetroTheaterArts an unforgettable production,