The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Our War, an unforgettable production, explores the present-day echoes and historical memories of the Civil War, in a series of monologues which are really like one-act plays. It’s a tapestry of what Artistic Director Molly Smith calls “the impact of a young country at war with itself.” Our War is part of Arena’s collaboration with The National Civil War Project, a multi-city, multi-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the war. A superb ensemble of local actors, joined by leaders in the DC community, performs in these vignettes, by a total of 25 celebrated playwrights. On October 24, they were joined by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Simply seeing Justice Ginsberg appear in That Boy, by David Lindsay-Abaire, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It is hard to underestimate the war’s importance in our history. C. Vann Woodward, in his introduction to the magnificent Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson quotes these lines from the book:
“The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American war combined.”
—Battle Cry of Freedom, by James M. McPherson, The Oxford History of the United States, Oxford University Press, first published in 1998.
Rifle fire was so intense it cut down a two-foot thick tree at the Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia in 1864, according to Steven Dutch in his essay The First Modern War and the Last Ancient War. After the battle,” he notes, “men were found on the battlefield unharmed but sound asleep; they simply collapsed on their feet from exhaustion. By modern standards, 30 per cent casualties are considered all but suicidal….[i]n several battles in the Civil War both sides took 30 per cent casualties, departed the battlefield in good order, regrouped, and were ready to fight again in a few days.
In some ways, the war seems startlingly archaic. In an cover story in the June 2014 Atlantic entitled The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates states “By the dawn of the Civil War, the enslavement of black America was thought to be so foundational to the country that those who sought to end it were branded heretics worthy of death.”
When I was a child, my Southern relatives would sometimes say, “Get out your confederate money, boys, the South shall rise again!” Occasionally, they still complained about Sherman. They described Southern women chasing their returning soldiers out of the house with a broom, crying “You lost!”
I had an Irish-American mother, and my idea of a heroine was Bernadette Devlin rather than Belle Boyd, the Confederate spy. It was difficult to understand how anyone could romanticize a society built on slavery. When my father took me to see Gone with the Wind, and cried as the camera pulled back to show the acres of dead and dying soldiers, I didn’t know what to say.
The Truth, Revealed by John Strand is a delightful piece, portraying the profound commitment of a young Southern girl to the Confederacy’s view of the war. Her parents have clearly inculcated in her some not-quite-right facts–the South actually fired on Fort Sumter; the war was not Abraham Lincoln’s fault; the North actually did win the war. Rand Paul is quoted, in a nod to today’s conservative Republicans; the war is referred to as “the war for Southern independence” (I have heard Southerners call it “the war of northern aggression”); and a young “true believer”, played with sparkle by Sara Waisanen, gives her all for the cause.
Being Wright by Charles Randolph-Wright is a beautifully written portrait of a family’s ability to transcend its past. Ricardo Frederick Evans is deeply touching as he describes an evil slave-owner and his surprisingly free-thinking wife, who runs the Underground Railroad right under her husband’s nose.
Moo, by Aditi Brennan Kapil features a South Asian woman (Lynette Rathnam), P.F.C. Mukherjee, 296th Brigade, Support Battalion, Company B. She is currently serving in a warzone, but she is still dreaming the American dream. Moo is engaging and determined, but she can’t help noticing that inequality hasn’t exactly vanished in America, in fact, in some ways, it is worse.But she’s going to be famous, she just knows it, because America told her she was special.
That Boy, by David Lindsay-Abaire, as performed by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is simply astonishing. A poignant story of a husband and wife and their non-motivated son, “Reluctant”, who finally finds something he’s not reluctant about, and breaks his parents’ hearts.
Context, by Ken Narasaki, appealingly acted by Tuyet Thi Pham, is a pitch-perfect meditation about what it means to be Asian in today’s world, and how context defines how we see ourselves and others.
Carry Me Home, by Naomi Iizuka is the monologue of a Union soldier (John Lescault), Irish-American by the sound of it, who pays tribute to a fellow soldier, Henry, who fought at Shiloh. Lescault modulates with great subtlety the grief and affection he feels for a long-ago friend.
Convalescent Ward, Harrison’s Landing 1862 by Amy Freed, spotlights the afflictions of the soldiers. The New York Times, June 8, 1862, notes “Any woman, any lady, with a little leisure, a needle, and a kind heart, can make herself of service. If she has no other time, let her work for the suffering soldiers on Sundays. It is no harm, but rather a positive virtue, to ply the needle or kindle the fire on the holy day for such a purpose.” Ms. Waisanen depicts the chief nurse who aids the wounded with brisk efficiency, a can-do attitude, and glimpses of underlying sensitivity.
A Cause for Laughter, by Ken Ludwig, performed by John Lescault, is about a glad-handing Congressman, Isaac Arnold, who knew Lincoln in life and admired him. Mr. Lescault captures the sinuous deceptiveness of the politician with great verve, while skillfully handling the twist at the end which caused a few gasps in the audience.
Questions for a Union Soldier, by Dan LeFranc, played by the Ensemble, refers to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as the “most significant event that’s ever occurred and probably ever will occur in the American…theater.” In discussing the effect of art on real-life events, it is interesting to note that “according to legend, Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 by saying ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.’ Whether the story is true or not, the sentiment underscores the public connection between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Civil War.”
Fourteen Freight Trains by Maria Agui Carter, featuring Ricardo Frederick Evans, is based on the life of a real soldier, Jose Gutierrez, who was one of the first casualties of the Iraq War. It is a breathtaking combination of acting, writing, and directing, honoring the great contributions immigrants have made to America and to the American military.
Times Have Changed by Heather Raffo is about a woman imprisoned by her abuser, based on Cleveland bus driver Ariel Castro. Lynette Rathnam outlines the suffering of the survivor with great dignity, in a reminder that times have not changed in some ways. There are many kinds of slavery, and all still exist today.
Antique by Robert O’Hara, played with elan by Kelly Renee Armstrong, begins as a charming sketch based on Antiques Roadshow, as a woman shows off a picture of a much-loved slave ancestor, Steven Armstrong.The piece gradually darkens, implying the deeper elements of pain and exploitation which existed in the life of a slave.
The Homesteader, by Samuel D. Hunter, performed winningly by John Lescault, brings a touch of suburban mall humor to the tale of Gary Barton, the descendant of a town founder, whose life has become ever so much more mundane than that of his worthy ancestor.
The Good Private, by Tanya Saracho, portrayed with grace by Sara Waisanen, takes place in an insane asylum in 1913, and reminds us of the lives of those women who posed as men and went to war.
Angels of the Battlefield is by Nicholas Ong, a senior at The George Washington University majoring in theater. Ong relates a break-up between a Northern girl and her Southern fiancé, echoing the many cruel disruptions that occurred during the war, in families and relationships both North and South. Lynette Rathman turns in a forceful and moving performance.
Woods Lewis, a Civil War Soldier, and a Grapefruit, by Diane Glancy, well-acted by Tuyet Thi Pham, brings up the Indian dimension of the war, in a vignette of a great granddaughter recalling the legacy of her ancestor, Woods Lewis, a Cherokee, who was a member of Company L, 4th Cavalry, Tennessee, on the side of the Union.
The Grey Rooster, by Lynn Nottage, played incomparably by Ricardo Frederick Evans, is another standout, probably the funniest and most memorable piece of the evening. Evans enacts the slave, Cato, who survives the war through wit, survival instinct, and the ability to care for an extremely talented rooster, Beauford Davenport.
Addressing, by Lydia R. Diamond, is performed to the background of children reciting the Gettysburg Address. An African American woman, Kelly Renee Armstrong, in her local Starbucks (of course) observes a racial incident which illuminates the many subtleties and ironies of the racial tensions of today. Kelly Renee Armstrong is a joy to behold as our heroine.
Set and Production Designer Robbie Hayes has created a lovely and elegantly rendered space, perfectly suited to the production. Costume Designer T. Tyler Stumpf has given the cast stylish and versatile costumes, which never distract from the main message of the evening. Lighting Designer (Catherine Girardi) and Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop enhance the production sensitively and with taste. Director Anita Maynard-Losh has given us a hall of mirrors, a daguerreotype in an ancient chest, a map of yesterday and tomorrow that reminds us that all wars are forever different and forever the same. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. The Civil War, now over, is over forever; at the same time, it will never be over, and will appear, ceaselessly, in our hearts and in our dreams.
Let us close with the words of the great Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, when he had no knowledge of the horrors to come:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Our War plays through November 9, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater-1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.