Our War, now running at Arena Stage, is short – just 95 minutes long. Yet it has the impact and insight of some three-act plays. There are two versions of Our War, one called "Stars" and one called "Stripes." They run on different nights and share most of the same material, which was written by 25 of America's finest playwrights, among them winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the Olivier Award. Those writers' monologues view the Civil War either through the eyes of someone who lived at the time of the war, or from today's perspective.
Arena Stage has assembled a cast of six actors to deliver this first-class writing: Kelly Renee Armstrong, Ricardo Frederick Evans, John Lescault, Tuyet Thi Pham, Lynette Rathnam, and Sara Waisanen. In addition to this ensemble, each performance includes one or more notable leaders from the Washington, D.C. community. During the four weeks of Our War's run, audiences can expect appearances from Diane Rehm, Chris Matthews, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Sally Quinn, Rev. Gary Hall, Deborah Amos, Andy Shallal, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Judy Woodruff, and various D.C. Council members, among others.
On opening night, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read a piece by David Lindsay-Abaire called "That Boy." The monologue is a first-person account of a woman giving birth some years before the Civil War, her impatient husband offering no help. The baby is eventually born and grows up to be stubborn and willful, signing up to be in the Army by choice and against his parents' wishes. Justice Ginsburg's moving reading captured beautifully the grief so many parents of the Civil War era must have felt when their children didn't return from battle.
The tone of the monologues varies greatly from author to author. Some are challenging, some touching, some angry, and some humorous. Director Anita Maynard-Losh keeps them moving at a brisk pace.
"The Truth, Revealed," by John Strand, is one of the serious monologues, but it's addressed with a lighthearted tone. It is essentially a reprimand from a fourth grader named Ruby who believes that the Civil War is an incorrect name. Ruby believes it should have been called the "War for Southern Independence." Played with spirit by Sara Waisanen, Ruby makes an impassioned argument against the war's waste of nearly 620,000 American lives.
Charles Randolph-Wright's "Being Wright" is a rumination on the playwright's last name and his family's history. Ricardo Frederick Evans plays Isaac Wright IV, who remembers how the wife of the Civil War-era plantation owner taught his ancestors to read and write. "She changed my ancestors' lives," muses Wright. "Context" by Ken Narasaki begins, "When I think about the Civil War, I think about color." Given a strong performance by Lynette Rathnam, "Context" tells of a child's first realization that some of her classmates are darker than she is, concluding, "when you're of color it's always about race and always about context."
Tuyet Thi Pham excels in a piece by Aditi Kapil called "Moo," while John Lescault is strongest in "Homesteader" by Gary Barton. Kelly Renee Armstrong is delightful in Robert O'Hara's "Antique." Armstrong plays a woman who has come to the Antiques Road Show to sell a daguerreotype of her Civil War-era ancestors. She is hilarious as both the so-called expert and the seller as they haggle over the proposed price of the photo.
The longest piece in Our War is Lynn Nottage's "The Grey Rooster," about a slave who is entrusted by his master with protecting his bourbon and his prize gamecock from the Yankee hordes while the master is off fighting. The piece is a brilliantly drawn, humorous personality sketch, marvelously acted by Ricardo Frederick Evans.
Other playwrights represented in Our War include María Agui Carter, Lydia Diamond, Amy Freed, Diane Glancy, Joy Harjo, Samuel D. Hunter, Naomi Iizuka, Dan LeFranc, Ken Ludwig, Taylor Mac, Heather Raffo, Tanya Saracho, Betty Shamieh, Tazewell Thompson, William S. Yellow Robe Jr., Karen Zacarías with Nicholas Ong, and Zinhle Essamuah.
As part of the National Civil War Project, Our War is successful at intelligently and sensitively offering new perspectives on one of the most important eras of American history.
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