A Play About Historical Reenactors Grapples With American IdentityCulture Watch
tags: reviews, plays, theatre
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
You have all seen the historical re-enactors, the men, women and children who dress up in period costumes, grab a musket and re-fight battles of the Civil War, American Revolution and other conflicts. They have been in numerous movies (Lincoln, Glory, Gettysburg),appeared on hundreds of television programs and been the subjects of countless magazine and newspaper articles. They jump back into history and bring it alive for us.
Talene Monahon’s new play, How to Load a Musket, takes a deep, hard look at the re-enactors of two wars, the American Revolution and the Civil War. There is a lot of humor connected to the American Revolution, but when she turns her sights on the Civil War she fires away at the lives of the re-enactors, and their views of history and politics, with a blazing musket of her own. She hits most of her targets, too. This play at the E. 59th Street Theater, in New York, that opened Thursday, is a scorcher and the big parades and quaint campfires we have come to know and love fade off into the distance as the playwright fires away about what America I was really like, is like, and might be like in the future. It is a bare knuckled, no holds barred historical brawl on the race issue in 1861 and today, too. She charges that the race argument is about today, and not yesterday.
The play starts off in the office of the head of the Lexington, Massachusetts, re-enactment group and its lovable members. They are cute and charming. One George Washington re-enactor says that he is actually jealous of another George Washington re-enactor. The Americans who play British soldiers poke fun at themselves and a high-spirited middle-aged woman with a thick Boston accent giggles about the men she meets on the battlefield, and so do the man chuckle about the women. They all talk about how hard it is to meet people, but quite easy in the middle of a re enactor battle. They discuss at length at what a warm world they have created within the confines of the re enactor universe.
When the playwright moves to the Civil War, though, the three-cheers-for-the-red-white-and-blue atmosphere changes and the terrain sizzles with debates over the role of re-enactors and which America they represent. There is loud and pronounced verbal fisticuffs over the controversial tearing down and removal of Confederate monuments and what many African Americans might really feel about race back then, today and tomorrow morning.
This is an electrifying play that pulls no punches, a play that grabs your throat. It asks again and again, whose American was it in the past, and whose America is it today?
The playwright focuses much of the second half of the play on the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that was held to support far right political causes and to prevent the removal of statues of Confederate war heroes. There were KKK men and women in their white robes, far right sympathizers and dozens of Confederate flags flying in the breeze. The far-right people were opposed by hundreds of shouting counter protestors. Things got out of hand. One woman was killed and several people were injured. The confrontation, recalled again in the play, drew international attention. In the play, the re-enactors fear they’ll be attacked, too.
That incident then erupted into a national debate over racism and President Trump’s famous line that there were good people on both sides. He should have said there were bad people in the crowds. The line is repeated in the play.
The great grandson of a Confederate soldier says that what is happening in America with monument removals and name changes, is “historical genocide” and that liberals today are trying to seriously rewrite history and cutting the stories of brave Confederate heroes out of it. This is, he insinuates, denying a part of American heritage. This is, of course, a debate that has been raging for several years.
The Confederate great grandson notes that his family helped a post-Civil War newly freed slave family learn how to farm and take care of their home. America is not, he claims, just heroes and villains.
The play is more of a moving conversation and heated debate than it is either a comedy or drama. Ms. Monahon deftly turns it into a play, though, carrying you along in the trenches as the re-enactors debate their lives and their wars.
The playwright does step over the line a few times. She suggests that tomorrow morning the U.S. might plunge int a Civil War over race. That is highly doubtful. She has an African American character say that Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist. Oh, come on!
Jaki Bradley has done a fine job of directing this play. She has carefully woven dialogues and story to turn a serious debate into an engaging and rewarding play. All of the performers are superb in this drama. Bradley gets fine performances from Carolyn Braver, Ryan Spahn, Adam Chanler-Berat, Andy Taylor, David J. Cork, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol and Nicole Villami.
This play is a bumpy night at the theater. If you go, regardless of your political persuasion – lock and load!
PRODUCTION: The play at the E. 59th Street Theaters is produced by the Less than Rent Theatre. Sets: Lawrence Moten, Lighting: Stacey Derosier, Sound: Jim Petty, Props: Caitlyn Murphy, Costumes Heather McDevitt Barton. The drama is directed by Jaki Bradley. It runs through January 26.
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