November 17, 2009

A Civil War Christmas - Jessica Thebus

Jessica Thebus, the director of A Civil War Christmas, spoke to the company on the first day of rehearsal - now a month past. It is interesting to read this again within the frame of the work we have done over the last few weeks. Here is the text of Jessica's greeting:

"I usually read something that I write on the first day. I like to do it for a few reasons. One is to share some of my thoughts in the time I have been living with the play, what I see as our map of where we are going, and to give as at least a starting place for our work together."

"Another, more important reason is to celebrate the gathering together of people in a room and launch a new journey, because one is never exactly like another. We are starting a journey, following a star, in celebration of our own, multi-denominational nativity."

"The story of the nativity—why, I wonder, do we as human beings love to hear the same story told over and over? With all our natural love of plot and suspense, we gather in homes and places of worship, and theaters, to hear again and again of the nutcracker, or of Scrooge and the spirits, or the birth of a child in a stable." Read the rest here...

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A Civil War Christmas - An American Musical Celebration by Paula Vogel. Music supervised, arranged, and orchestrated by Daryl Waters. Directed by Jessica Thebus. At the Huntington Theatre Company's main stage; The Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston MA, 02115. Runs November 13 through December 13, 2009. Box Office 617 266-0800 or buy online at


Deborah said...

I saw the performance tonight-11/19and while I appreciated the reliably excellent performances of the cast members (and the sets were good), I felt that the mixing up of genders and races was an impediment and did not contribute anything but confusion to the play. There was so much quick switching from one scene to another that it was sometimes hard to follow.
Maybe I am rigid and lacking in imagination, but I did not see the rationale for casting a female as the 13 year old confederate boy who wanted to join up. And the Christmas party in the White House where Lincoln was having punch with his cabinet was also distracting due to some of the cabinet ministers being female and/or black. This was the Civil War. I understand that many roles are often assumed by one actor in a play but I didn't think there was a need for having some of the women play the roles of cabinet ministers.
To me, it did not add anything, or convey anything meaningful. It was just distracting.
And there was no reason to have a black man play Levi Cohen. It didn't make sense and added nothing substantive. There were no black Jews at that time. Plus, there was mention of a sedar, but
there are no sedars associated with Hannukah. It's a a Passover thing.
Anyway, despite these errors in judgement, I enjoyed the play, but only somewhere in the middle of the scale and would have liked it better if whoever cast it had not tried to make whatever point he/she was trying to make in mixing up the genders and races. In a play about a time when gender roles were clearly defined and the whole issue was race, mixing up the genders and races did not seem to me to be an appropriate device.

Charles Haugland said...

Thanks for your comments, Deborah.

We're glad you enjoyed the acting; that so much of the talent is Boston-based is exciting to us.

A bit of context about the casting choices, if you're interested: Paula Vogel wrote this play with the intention that an ensemble cast of mixed age, race, and gender play the various roles. Ten years ago, Anna Deavere Smith challenged Paula to write a play about race, and this play is in part a response to that challenge. Anna, as you may know, does performances where she portrays individuals of many races and backgrounds, and she's become a major theorist on how theatre contributes to conversations about race in America. With Raz, Paula is in part referencing the history of breeches roles, cross-gender performances by women common in the Civil War era and even earlier.

So, you are asking us some of the same questions Paula, Jessica, and the actors asked themselves during the process of this play: When doing a piece set in an earlier era, how should you cast the play? Is there a risk in perpetuating that era's distinctions about race or gender? What does it mean to perform a character of a different race or gender? They're complicated questions ... and you're the ultimate judge as to whether the answers this production found were successful. We're very glad that the choices were provocative and that you're questioning what we put onstage.

I know from talking to our audiences that other people make different connections and have diverse responses; it's probably part of why I love going to theatre. For me, that two women in a presidential cabinet - one black, one white, obliquely reminding us of a couple modern secretaries of state say that politics in 1864 were more partisan than they had ever been before is a moment where I think about divisions in both 1864 and 2009. Alternately, perhaps the cabinet's diversity is a small reference to how the men in Lincolns cabinet helped make it possible for everyone to serve in politics.

That said, part of your comment was about confusion between characters. It is always helpful to hear comments about things that are not reading clearly to the audience. For example, the seder mentioned in the play takes place in the past, not during the winter holiday season, and that obviously wasn't clear enough.

We appreciate that you come see our plays, and thanks for sharing your perspective with us.

I would be further interested to hear what others readers and patrons thought about how the story telling did (or did not) work for you.

Charles Haugland
Literary Associate
Huntington Theatre Company

Forrest said...

Charles --

Thanks for your thoughtful and inciteful response to Deborah's question.

I have to say that the mixed casting (for lack of a better phrase) served as a distraction that didn't work in an important way, namely that our group of 4 left the theater mostly talking about the casting choices, rather than the play itself.

Notwithstanding your explanation, I can't imagine that Ms Vogel really meant for people to essentially forget about the play and just remember a few bits of what we considered odd casting. Rather than makling us think that all of the actors were "everyman" (or woman), we were left wondering if Secretary Stanton was supposed to be a cross dresser, if there was a greater objective in having a woman play the young Confederate soldier, or if the inn keeper was supposed to be conspicuously gay.

The creative casting also undermined the viewer's belief in the other "facts" of the play -- once we stop trusting what we're seeing, it undermines our confidence in anything presented is really "true" -- if we doubt that Secretary Stanton went out in dresses, or that Levi Cohen was black, then should we also wonder whether the Christmas carole attributed to Longfellow was in fact his work? After a while, it turns historical fiction into historical fantasy, a line that is better not crossed.

As far as the play goes, it reminded me a lot of Ragtime, but without the great music. The racial issues, hanging a story on famous people and facts of the time, and simultaneous stories were very similar, but Ragtime manages a "homerun" while CW Christmas is more of a long fly ball that is ultimately caught for an out.

I really wanted to like this more than I actually did. It was enjoyable enough (that Jacqui Parker can sing! and Gilbert Glenn Brown has a spectacular voice!) but not quite the evening that inspires me to tell friends that they really have to go, and I expect that's what it takes to keep the Huntington going.