By Janeal Downs
It was about to be the dawn of a new day, buy cialis a new era. Abraham Lincoln had just signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the country was finished with a horrible war where many lives were lost and the people are still wrestling with its conscience on the topic of slavery. Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T) said this is the setting of the play which takes place on Christmas Eve of 1864 where many different stories will take the audience back to the time when the Civil War was still a fresh topic. Firehouse Theatre will present “A Civil War Christmas” starting Nov. 20. The play is what Dr. T calls an American musical. “We don’t in any way minimize the importance or the cogency of the events that surrounded the civil war and are about that period of our nation’s history which was a very difficult time, in particular Virginia history,” Dr. T said. “Because Virginia was really the epicenter for that.”
She said many historical figures will be portrayed in the play. For example Elizabeth Keckley, the seamstress for former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. “Here you have a black woman during the civil war period that is the confidant and only friend really of Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States,” Dr. T said. Other historical characters portrayed in the play include Abraham Lincoln, General Robert E. Lee, General Ulysses S. Grant and Walt Whitman, a writer who Dr. T said many do not know was active in providing aid for wounded soldiers though he lived in New England.
Dr. T said the play will consist of 11 cast members who will play over 50 roles. She called the cast a wonderfully diverse cast with some new faces to the Richmond theater scene and with an age range of characters in their twenties all the way to the sixties. There will be a live band made up of acoustic instruments such as the violin, bass and snare drums so the “music will sound like it’s coming from the period without any electronics.” Dr. T said the play, originally written by award-winning playwright and university professor Paula Vogel, is fairly new and this is the first time it will be shown in Richmond.
Dr. T is an associate professor within VCU’s theater department, Founder and assistant director of a non-profit social justice art organization called the Conciliation project, and also the education and outreach director of the Firehouse Theatre. She said she has been in the industry for 40 years and to be able to mix a historic event with the Christmas season is new and refreshing for her. “People’s everyday lives are affected and yet they still have to go on and time still goes on. The season of Christmas didn’t stop just because it was the Civil War,” Dr. T said. “If you think about, say Hurricane Katrina, it didn’t stop Christmas or Thanksgiving but it did affect how people celebrated it.” She said people find ways to connect with the season in any way they can because it speaks to their humanity.
One actor said not only did he like the subject matter of the play but also the fact that he got to work with Dr. T. “She’s an incredible director,” Jay Banks said. “She brings things out of you that you don’t even realize that you had.” Banks, like the other cast members, will play numerous roles including the role of a soldier, shopkeeper, and a college student, with the latter being one of his favorites. One historical role he will play is Ely Parker, a Native American general in the Civil War. Among other honors, Banks said Parker was the first Native American ambassador for foreign affairs.
Banks said he has been in about seven or eight professional shows in VCU’s theater performance program. He said he thinks the show will be wonderful; one of the best parts of the show is the “amazing” music which was directed by Andrienne Wilson. “I think that people can recognize what happened in history through this play that has a lot of fun moments, that has a lot of musical moments, but recognize the past of our country and the history of our nation,” Banks said. “Not just see it as the past or as history but see it as how it applies today.” He said he hopes the audience really gets a chance to think about the play’s topic.
Another actor in the play, Raven Wilkes, is also a VCU theater performance major. Wilkes said she has been in four of the main stage shows put on by VCU, including “The Colored Museum” which was also directed by Dr. T. Wilkes made her professional debut in Richmond playing Puck in “A midsummer’s night dream” with Richmond Shakespeare and was even nominated for a Richmond Critic Circle award for best supporting actress in a play.
One of the main roles she said she will play is the role of a woman named Hannah. Hannah is a recently freed slave and, with her daughter, is traveling to Washington D.C. Along the way, Wilkes said they come across different problems including the two becoming separated. Wilkes said their story is “not only their journey of running to freedom but their journey of finding each other and being reunited.” Another role she plays is Rose, the wife of an African American union sergeant in the military, both freed slaves. She said the only reason the man joined the army was to find Rose who was taken by rebel soldiers and to get revenge. Rose’s character is portrayed through flashbacks within her husband’s memory.
Both Wilkes and Banks credited the play’s dramaturg, Grant Freeman with assisting the cast by creating an informative packet on the time period in which they would be acting. “The research was a big part in preparing for the role because you want to do them justice. You’re portraying a real life person,” Wilkes said. “So you have this need to fulfill it and show the truth behind who they were.” She said the play is a wonderful family show and something people will enjoy. “I think it’s something that people can really learn from,” Wilkes said. “It’s something that people can reflect on and really feel moved and get in the Christmas and Holiday spirit.”
A Civil War Christmas will run from Nov. 21 to Dec. 20, with opening night on Nov. 21, Thursday to Saturdays starting at 8 p.m. Sunday “Pay what you will” showings will be held on Dec. 7 and Dec. 14. Tickets are available for $35 at www.firehousetheatre.org or by phone at (804)355-2001 with student, senior, military, RAPT, and group rates available. The Firehouse Theatre is located at 1609 W. Broad Street.