Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hey, there's a sort of national Civil War project!

I wrote back in 2011 about the possibility that the nation's theatre companies might outshine the federal government in observing the sesquicentennial; here's evidence that's happening:  Four regional theatres and a performing arts center have announced partnerships with four universities to commission, develop, and premiere several new pieces of professional theatre relating to the war, along with presenting student work and academic symposia and the like.  The umbrella organization calls itself the National Civil War Project.

"The American Civil War is arguably one of the most significant times in American history, an era that raised issues still relevant today," the press release's lead paragraph says in a sentence that does nothing but demonstrate how useless the word "arguably" is.  (Is there really an argument to be made that the Civil War is not one of the most significant times in American history?  Could we hear that argument, please?)  The institutions involved are located in a few cities not all that far apart from each other, all on or near the Atlantic:  Cambridge, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, and a Maryland suburb of Washington called College Park.  "These diverse localities symbolize the geographic scope of the American Civil War," the press release tells us with a straight face.  I guess "symbolize" can mean whatever it wants in this context, but in truth the geographic scope of the war comprised fighting in twenty-three states and six territories, plus naval battles. The final shot of the war was fired by a Confederate warship disrupting Union trade off the coast of Alaska; the final land battle was in Texas. No battles occurred in Massachusetts, however, so I suppose Cambridge symbolizes the siege of Vicksburg or something.

All right, so the press release is badly written and the project itself is not really national; the Tri-State-and-Federal-District Civil War Project is still an ambitious undertaking that may well generate a bunch of good plays, and so more power to them. Here's how it's supposed to go:  

The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta is working with Emory University to develop and produce a stage version of Native Guard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry about the Louisiana Native Guards, a Union regiment made up of former slaves.  The author is Natasha Trethewey, head of Emery's creative writing program, who also double-dips as Poet Laureate of both the United States and the State of Mississippi. She'll be working on the show with Alliance's artistic director, Susan V. Booth, who directed shows around Chicago for a number of years and does great work.

American Repertory Theater, housed at Harvard University, is collaborating with its landlord on a set of programs that include developing and producing three shows:  The Boston Abolitionists, about the Anthony Burns trial, to be devised by an ensemble of students in A.R.T.'s training program; War Dept., a musical being written by composer Jim Bauer and visual artist Ruth Bauer that A.R.T. describes as a show "set in Ford’s Theater that explores the lives of friends and family who search for answers among the records of the Civil War dead and wounded;" and Memoranda During the War, an opera being composed by Matt Aucoin based on Walt Whitman's journals of his time as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals during the war.

There are few cities that have the rich and complicated Civil War history that Baltimore has, but Center Stage in Baltimore (whose website renders its name both as one word and as two--is this really a hard thing to get the board to vote on?), working with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, says it's commissioning an as yet untitled work by "a leading British playwright" that will explore British and international perspectives on the war.  Um, okay.  They also promise "the regional premiere of a Civil War-themed work around which significant artistic and community engagement programming will take place;" that turns out to be Paula Vogel's lightweight holiday show A Civil War Christmas.  Ah well, so much for seizing the opportunity at Center Stage.

Arena Stage in Washington, in collaboration with George Washington University, plans three shows. One is Healing Wars, a dance piece with narration conceived and to be choreographed by Liz Lerner, whose idea the whole Project is.  It "explores the experiences of the healers tasked with treating the physical and psychic wounds of battle."  Our War will be an anthology piece commissioned from 25 playwrights that promises to be about not just the war but its continuing legacy.  As yet untitled is a new piece from serial one-man-show deviser Daniel Beaty, "portraying the depth and breadth of humanity involved in the American Civil War."  I presume Beaty, who's apparently great at this kind of thing, will play them all.

Most of this seems like a healthy amount of interesting activity.  Let's hope something comes of it.

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