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Union Suit

Writer Whitney Hamilton tells the fascinating story of the women who fought in the Civil War.

By New York City

Whitney Hamilton's Union
Whitney Hamilton's Union
It's a little-known fact that more than 400 women fought in the Civil War disguised as men. Many went undiscovered until they were wounded or killed in battle--and, in some instances, pregnant women were not found out until they gave birth. Most of these women returned to their regular lives once the war was over. A few did not. Whitney Hamilton's play, Union, focuses on one of the women who continued to live life as a man after the war.

"I have become a fan of the history channel," jokes Hamilton, who cites that station's TV specials as one of her research sources. In addition, Richard B. Hall's Patriots In Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War provided crucial background information. "When I first started writing this play, I didn't know if it would be plausible," says Hamilton. Thanks to the Hall book, she found that women fighting as men during the Civil War was not a extremely rare occurrence. There were many reasons why women fought in the war--patriotism, a desire not to be separated from their husbands, survival. The last named reason was particularly prevalent among Southern women who lost their homes and families and had no viable alternatives other than prostitution. Although the protagonist of Union is fictional, the stories of these brave women provided Hamilton with inspiration.

In addition to having written the play, Hamilton also fills the role of the central character, Henry Kieler. "She makes the decision to continue to live her life as a man," says the performer/playwright, "so I would call her transgendered." Hamilton notes that one reason she wrote the play was that she wanted "to deal with gender issues during the Victorian era." The bulk of Union is set after the war, when Henry is hired as a farmhand by a blind widow. Both have suffered losses, and their business arrangement seems to be everything either of them could want. However, when the widow makes an unexpected offer, Henry is forced to come to terms with his past and with his secrets.

Though the production by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble marks Union's world premiere, Hamilton has lived with the project for some time. "I wrote the first draft of the play back in 1996," she says. "I've worked on it over the years, and adapted it into a screenplay. Then I took things that were in the screenplay and put them into the play. It's kind of like a little badminton going on here, back and forth."

Hamilton hopes that this production will help to attract money for the film version of Union. She is thrilled to be working with Oberon, and delighted that her work is of the first original plays produced by the company, which mainly stages classic texts. Although nervous and stressed, she has full confidence in the project. "The director, Emily Tetzlaff, is finding layers that I never knew were in the play," she says. "And I wrote it!"


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