Arena’s ‘Our War’: Provocative riffs on America’s Civil War

Arena’s ‘Our War’: Provocative riffs on America’s Civil War

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The company of "Our War" at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Credit: Teresa Wood.
"Our War" promo, Illustration by Mirko Ilic.
“Our War” promo, Illustration by Mirko Ilic.

WASHINGTON, October 26, 2014 – Penned by a variety of playwrights both veteran and new Arena’s “Our War,” which opened last weekend, is not a play in the traditional sense. It is a collection of monologue-style riffs on America’s Civil War, that tragic blot on U.S. history that has gnawed on the American psyche for nearly 150 years without a final resolution.

Presented by a superb cast of six actors, each monologue is a self-contained miniature. Collectively, the entire grouping is a meditation not only on history, and on what it means to be an American citizen.

Playwrights represented in this production include (in alpha order) Maria Agui Carter, Lydia Diamond Amy Freed, Diane Glancy, Joy Harjo, Samuel D. Hunter, Naomi Iizuka, Aditi Kapil, Dan LeFranc, David Lindsay-Abaire, Ken Ludwig, Taylor Mac, Ken Narasaki, Lynn Nottage, Robert O’Hara, Nicholas Ong, Charles Randolph-Wright, Heather Raffo, Tanya Saracho, Betty Shamieh, John Strand, Tazwell Thompson, William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., and Karen Zacarias.

The six actors who bring their characters to life are Kelly Renée Armstrong, Ricardo Frederick Evans, John Lescault, Tuyet Thi Pham, Lynette Rathnam and Sara Waisanen. All six seem to have been carefully chosen not just for their acting skills. Each also serves as a representative racial or ethnic type, a casting choice underscoring this production’s twin themes of diversity and inclusiveness. Or, at times, the lack of either.

As an added draw, each performance of “Our War” adds a special guest star or two to the cast, with each representing the public, private, and media sectors of the Washington, D.C. community.

Opening night featured an appearance by Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who presented an affecting reading of David Linsday-Abaire’s “That Boy,” a Civil War “Everyman” story that charts the sad history of a complicated young man lost forever in the chaos of the Civil War.

An additional twenty-nine special guests will appear during this production’s run, both singly and in pairs. (To access a schedule and list, please visit the link below this review.)*

Also worth noting: there are two flavors of “Our War,” one labeled “Stars,” the other “Stripes.” Eleven monologues are common to both versions, while the remainder alternate on given nights. (For exact details, check out our link below.)*

Arena’s stark, intentionally bare bones production is an original, limited engagement that unfolds on an almost personal level in the theater complex’s intimate Kogod Cradle space.

The set for the show consists of irregular faux stone platforms, perhaps meant to resemble the monumental public plazas, university quadrangles, and courthouse steps where key civil rights demonstrations increasingly took place in the 1960s and after. Illustrative projections appear in background.

The opening night monologues ranged from whimsical and funny, to wistful and sad, to angry and satirical. While some reflected on historical events surrounding the Civil War itself, the majority of readings on opening night fast-forwarded the audience to the United States of the late twentieth or current twenty-first century, a choice that marks “Our War” as more of a meditation on history than a detailed chronicling of the past.

A representative sample:

Delivered with an almost charming sincerity by Sara Waisanen, John Strand’s “The Truth, Revealed” launched “Our War” on opening night. Presented as an oral report or class speech delivered by a feisty, conservative, elementary school girl, this initial sketch careened from wit to irony to satire and back again as Mr. Strand’s self-confident little diva fearlessly championed the Stars and Bars.

Sara Waisanen.
Sara Waisanen regales her grade school class with righteousness. (Credit: Teresa Wood.

While Mr. Strand’s monologue proves highly entertaining, it also serves a key function in this production. Having caricatured a straw-man conservative point of view, “The Truth” serves to dismiss this viewpoint for the rest of the evening. It’s almost like a ritual exorcism, which, once complete, allows the remainder of the presentation to traverse a comfortably familiar progressive path.

Taking an entirely different direction was Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Homesteader.” In this sketch, an amusingly awkward John Lescault impersonated a hapless local who’s been talked into delivering a dedicatory speech opening a new shopping mall in a mythic small town in Idaho.

The hook: the speaker’s ancestor, a Civil War vet, was one of the town’s founding inhabitants.

The irony: the developers, who could care less about Civil War history, simply want to use the connection to plug the mall.

Robert O’Hara’s “Antique” similarly satirizes PBS’ popular “Antique Roadshow,” in which a traveling expert or experts check out the prized collectibles of average Americans, informing them as to whether their “priceless heirlooms” have any marketable value.

Mr. O’Hara’s theater piece—a verbal duet rather than a monologue—pits an apparently clueless black woman (Kelly Renée Armstrong) against the TV expert. Ms. Armstrong’s character knows that her treasured keepsake, the daguerreotype of her Civil War ancestor who was once a slave, might very well be valuable. But she plays dumb like a fox to up the ante.

The irony here works both ways. The elitism and condescension of the expert betrays his ignorance of human nature. On the other hand, Ms. Armstrong’s character doesn’t get off easily either. Holding family history in little regard, she’s more interested in the size of the check she might get for selling her daguerreotype to the highest bidder.

Ricardo Frederick Evans. (Credit: Teresa Wood)
Ricardo Frederick Evans. (Credit: Teresa Wood)

Lynn Nottage’s “The Grey Rooster” is a witty period piece that goes down a distinctly different path, an almost slapstick monologue delivered after the fact by a former slave, whose character is literally inhabited by Ricardo Frederick Evans.

This classic bit of storytelling—a witty blending of Mark Twain and “Prairie Home Companion”—takes its time meandering toward its conclusion as Mr. Evans conjures up the story of a tolerable master, his intolerable wife, their famous fighting gamecock, and their secret stash of high-class Kentucky bourbon.

The audience can’t resist identifying with Mr. Evans’ character in this one. He’s a scoundrel, to be sure. But a scoundrel who ends up on the right side of history.

Other monologues deal with America’s ongoing racial issues in a more serious vein.

Lynette Rathnam. (Credit:  Teresa Wood.
Lynette Rathnam. (Credit: Teresa Wood.

Angrily but sassily delivered by Lynette Rathnam, Aditi Kapil’s “Moo” is the story of a female Asian-American soldier who’s on the verge of reverting back to civilian status. She’s still sold on the American dream, even as she catalogues the countless reasons why it’s unlikely to come true for her.

In a similar vein, Tuyet Thi Pham plays another Asian-American in Ken Narasaki’s “Context.” Ms. Pham’s character here is an American citizen of Japanese descent who is increasingly frustrated by the surprisingly odd flavor of discrimination faced by many East Asian immigrants and U.S. citizens today: they’re “too smart,” and thus often rejected for admission to their own state universities, an inconvenient truth that remains underreported in the media.

Maria Agui Carter’s “Fourteen Freight Trains,” charts the strange and ultimately fatal journey north of a Central American illegal immigrant as portrayed by Ricardo Frederic Evans, who proved again to be one of the evening’s most talented storytellers.

An illegal Central American alien, Mr. Evans’ character takes advantage of a legal loophole that gets him on a fast track to citizenship. He enlists in the military, knowing that his service will eventually entitle him to that longed-for prize. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make it to the finish line.

In addition to fine acting, this production also benefits from director Anita Maynard-Losh’s excellent sense of pacing.

For all its pluses, however, “Our War’s” lack of political and philosophical balance troubled us, as we noted earlier.

The overwhelming majority of the production’s monologues fail to strike new philosophical or moral ground, offer different perspectives, or even hint at alternative approaches to healing the rifts that came to a head during the Civil War and have persisted ever since.

Instead, taken as a whole, this production unquestioningly supports the progressive notion that the U.S. was, is, and ever shall be incorrigibly racist, doomed as a nation by an incorrigible original sin that can never be forgiven or erased.

“Our War” is in many ways a bracing approach to a perpetually touchy subject. The writing of each economical, miniature sketch is superb. The actors are convincing. The production moves along briskly with scarcely a dull patch.

But “Our War” is also stubbornly single-minded when it comes to exploring history and thought. It’s a missed opportunity for having that real discussion on race and history that everyone today claims to want.

Rating: ** (2 out of 4 stars)


“Our War” continues at Arena through November 9. Performances take place in Arena’s Kogod Cradle, located at the Mead Center for American Theater complex, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington, D.C. For a listing of performance dates, including the schedule of monologues for both the “Stars” and the “Stripes” versions of these performances, follow this link, and then use the “Performance Schedule” drop-down menu on the web page to access more detailed information.

For photos and short bios of each special guest performer, use this link and select the “Notable Washingtonians” dropdown.

For a listing plus photo of special guest performers by individual show, follow this link. To purchase a ticket for a performance associated with each special guest, click the link on this page that appears to the right of each photo or photos. Single tickets are $30 and up

Alternatively, you can also purchase tickets the old-fashioned way by calling Arena’s box office at (202) 488-3300.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17