Washington's Arena Stage is part of the National Civil War Project, a collaboration among universities, theaters, and regions directly affected by the Civil War to examine the experiences of the war and their reverberations 150 years later. Our War, the current production in Arena's intimate Kogod Cradle, brings together the words of 25 contemporary playwrights in monologues that give voice both to people who lived through the conflict and to those who have followed.
As enacted by an empathetic six-member ensemble and directed unobtrusively by Anita Maynard-Losh, Our War is as interesting to the mind as it is to the heart. Many of these perspectives are not often heard in historical works, as the playwrights and cast members include people of numerous races and ethnic backgrounds, and half the authors are women.
Because of the wealth of material, Arena is presenting two versions of Our War, "Stars" and "Stripes," with some overlap and some different monologues. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read one of the monologues at the press night performance, and Arena has scheduled many other prominent Washingtonians to participate during the run.
Among the highlights of the "Stars" program performed on press night: "Convalescent Ward, Harrison's Landing 1862" by Amy Freed, in which two nurses use bitter humor while tending patients and volunteers at a soldiers' hospital; "Fourteen Freight Trains," in which an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala (Ricardo Frederick Evans) recounts the need to belong that drove him to join the U.S. Army and serve in Iraq; "Antique" by Robert O'Hara, which pits a descendent of slaves (Kelly Renee Armstrong) against an antiques dealer (John Lescault) regarding the value and the price of a family heirloom; and "Woods Lewis, a Civil War Soldier, and a Grapefruit" by Diane Glancy, the story of a Cherokee who fought on the Union side in Tennessee.
Many of the stories are about what it means to be an American. An African-American man shares stories about his family in slavery and the name they took after they were freed. A contemporary Japanese-American girl wonders where she would have fit in the black-white divide. A kidnapped woman, held in chains for many years, considers the parallels between her captor and a slave owner. And a descendent of a Union veteran who became a homesteader in Idaho wonders what his ancestor would think of life today in the town he founded.
Not all of the scenes are equally effective; in fact, the cast points that out to the audience in one meta-theatrical moment. Still, this audacious theatrical experiment is, for the most part, a success.