Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Civil War plays elsewhere, not in Chicago

It's old news by now--but still shameful-- that there is no federal Civil War Sesquicentennial organizing committee (though the admirable National Park Service has events planned at the Civil War battlefields it administers), and if online journalist Robert McNamara's round-up is up to date, only twenty-five states (plus D. C.) have official commemorations planned (five of the eleven states from the old Confederacy, twenty of the twenty-five loyal states).  Nothing west of Iowa and Missouri, though the states of Kansas, California and Oregon, as well as the territories of Colorado, Dakota (not yet itself divided into North and South), Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington, all contributed soldiers to the Union army.

So it will be interesting to see how widespread the production of Civil War plays will be during the next four years.  Outside of Chicago, there is somewhat of a natural accumulation of them in places that were in the war's geography, but let's hope that by 2015 the country's theatres will have outshone the embarrassingly absent official entities.

Off to a great start is Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, whose story theatre musical Civil War Voices, based on period diaries and letters, is on tour through Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey.  Back home they are in the midst of their run of The Road to Appomattox, a world premiere by Catherine Bush that pairs the story of a modern day married couple considering divorce with the story of Lee preparing to surrender to Grant.

Elsewhere in Virginia earlier this year was Rappahannock County by Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell, another musical based on Civil War diaries and letters, which premiered at the Virginia Arts Festival in April as a joint commission by the Festival, the University of Richmond, Virginia Opera, and the University of Texas at Austin.  It played the Texas leg of its premiere last month.   

In the Shenandoah Valley, Wayside Theatre (which is run by my old Body Politic Theatre colleague Warner Crocker--Hi, Warner!) began its 50th anniversary season with the 1999 pastiche Reunion ... A Musical Epic in Miniature, about a post-Civil War acting troupe staging a show about the war.  One of the reviews for Reunion went out of its way to deny that slavery was the chief cause of the war, cautioned its readers that the play had a "Northern point of view," and regretted that "a Virginia audience should be prepared — some of them, anyway — for hearing their ancestors referred to as traitors."  Yes, the war is still with us.

Up north, Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, originally produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in February, is being co-produced by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield, Michigan and Plowshares Theatre, an African American company in Detroit.  It's about a Jewish Confederate who returns home after Appomattox and finds his home occupied by a pair of his former, now newly freed, slaves--also Jews, having been raised in the faith of their master's household.  It closed October 2 at JET and is scheduled to re-open at Plowshares in January.

Missing in action as far as I can see so far is James Still's The Heavens Are Hung in Black, which seemed two years ago a contender to be done all over the country during the sesquicentennial.  It was commissioned by Ford's Theatre, no less, and premiered there for the Lincoln bicentenary in 2009.  The play depicts Lincoln during five months in 1862 from the death of his son Willie through the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It had a second production, also in 2009, at Indiana Rep, where Still was resident playwright, but seems not to have had a third one yet.  Of course, 2012 will be the sesquicentennial year of the events it depicts, so maybe there'll be a major production of it then.

A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel, though there is at least one production scheduled this year, also seems to be underperforming what appeared to be its potential not long ago.  It premiered in 2008 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and went on to productions in Boston, Chicago (at Northlight, so really in Skokie) and Palo Alto.  It's a sentimental imagining of Christmas in 1864 Washington, featuring a raft of period Christmas songs, so it seemed poised to become an annual event at theatres at least through 2015.  But the only production this year I can find online is at History Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I'll post information on more Civil War shows here in Chicago and around the country as I learn of them.

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