Reflections on ‘Our War’

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Reflections on ‘Our War’
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)

Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, describes the evolution of “Our War” as “a synthesis of art, scholarship and community.” She further defines it as “the extraordinary collaboration between universities, theaters and regions that were differently affected by the Civil War.”

As part of the National Civil War Project, this joining of forces between prestigious arts groups — local and national — affords the audience illuminating vignettes as told by the imagined voices of those whose lives were affected during and after the war. Smith selected monologues from 25 leading American playwrights commissioned for the project, dividing their works into “Stars” and “Stripes” nights.

On press night, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg treated us to a reading, performing as a slave whose son is called to go to war in “That Boy,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Lindsay-Abaire. There are six members in the ensemble — Kelly Renee Armstrong, Ricardo Frederick Evans, John Lescault, Tuyet Thi Pham, Lynette Rathnam and Sara Waisanen — who portray the other characters for a total of 18 readings each night.

Arena Stage bolstered its cast by netting 30 notable leaders from the D.C. region to perform a reading throughout the run of the show. Among them are D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” WAMU radio host Diane Rehm, NBC reporter Tom Sherwood and The Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of Alexandria’s Alfred Street Baptist Church.

The first monologue, performed by Waisanen and written by John Strand, is called “The Truth, Revealed.” It is in the voice of 10-year-old Ruby, a student of Bull Run Elementary, who is reading from her class assignment. Little Ruby has been indoctrinated at a tender age to espouse the Southern side of the story, blaming Abraham Lincoln for the killing of 618,222 soldiers.

Ruby likes numbers. She reminds us that there were 4 million slaves when the war started and its cost was $5.2 billion. To support her theory, she calls John Wilkes Booth a hero, asserts slavery was important to a successful economy and quotes Rand Paul to back her up, stating “You can’t pass a law to make people change what’s in their hearts.”

In another, entitled “Moo”, written by Iditi Kapil, Rathnam channels a Hispanic female soldier who enlists in the U.S. Army to gain a foothold on citizenship while dreaming of becoming a pop star.

“It’s never been free. It’s always been on someone’s back,” the soldier says, acknowledging war’s costs and immigrants’ participation in our military adventures. It’s a sassy, street-smart, low-rider delivery that Rathnam nails.

Each powerfully expressed and richly textured piece relates a story from the shared experience of the Civil War. A few are set in modern day while others come from the battlefield. They feature many perspectives, including black, Irish, Asian, American Indian and early European settlers, including an ironic tale from a homesteader’s descendent (delivered masterfully by Lescault) who’s asked to dedicate a shopping mall on the former property of his great-great grandfather.

Evans gives a moving performance as a soldier from Guatemala in “Fourteen Freight Trains” written by Maria Agui Carter. The first soldier to die in Iraq, he crossed the borders to come to America as an orphan. It is an earth-moving tale of a young boy who reminds us of the immigrants, illegal or not, who fought our wars and bought the line, “liberty and justice for all”.

In another, “The Grey Rooster” by Lynn Nottage, Evans takes on the character of a Kentucky plantation owner’s slave, a man who made bourbon and owned a champion, fighting gamecock. In it, he reminds us that masters often required their slaves to go to war in their place.

“Our War” runs through November 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

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