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DOWNEY – Last weekend members of the First Baptist Church of Downey and the True Vine Missionary Baptist Church of Lynwood filled the house three nights in a row with their compelling performance of A Civil War Christmas.
Closing night alone saw nearly 600 people in attendance for this play by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paula Vogel. Some very inventive staging techniques were used to present the complex story in the church sanctuary.
Set in Washington on Christmas Eve, 1864, with a multitude of characters, the play is many things all at once: historical drama, passion play, musical, and pageant. If there is a central character, it is the Civil War itself and its underlying cause of slavery.
The play is not one story, but many, as it seeks to offer an ambitious snapshot of life in and around the capital as the armies on either side of the Potomac hunker down one bitterly cold evening toward the end of the war.
Vogel’s themes are the large issues facing human society throughout the ages: finding and keeping hope amid murderous times, and the desire for revenge versus the cleansing liberation of forgiveness. And for Americans, Vogel highlights the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
The multiple story lines (with flashbacks) weave and intersect up to a parallel climax with two children, one lost in the city and one captured by Union forces, facing imminent death. The tension builds amid the striking counterpoint of the chorus singing the joyful African-American Christmas spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”
While there was some trouble at times with hearing all of the dialogue, the amateur cast, directed by Lana Joy Wahlquist, did a remarkable job of conveying the essence of the various plot lines and the underlying emotions. Their efforts clearly brought forth a magical moment of theater. Twenty-seven people played a total of sixty-four characters, often switching costumes, and having to remember to change mannerisms and voice. The play includes real historical figures who interact with fictional characters in order to present a tableau of the effects of the war on all levels of society.
There was also cross-cultural casting, which Wahlquist says was partly from necessity, and partly from a desire to underscore our common humanity and unity as Americans. This was also done in the Broadway production.
Referring to her commitment to bring more theater to Downey, Wahlquist says, “We want to give people a whole range of communal experiences and help them realize the bond they share with one another.”
Manny Garay had great presence as Decatur Johnson, a composite figure based on two Black union soldiers who received medals of Honor. Johnson is understandably filled with unrelenting rage after southern soldiers kidnap his wife from their farm, and he later learns of mass executions of captured Black soldiers. His vow to “Take No Prisoners” is put to the test in a shocking development when he must ask himself what it means to be a Christian.
Aimee Callegari interpreted the real historical figure of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her own freedom, and later became the seamstress and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley is haunted by the death of her only son George who died in battle as a Union soldier, and grief fuels her desperate search to find a young girl lost in the city before the child dies from exposure.
Jessica Perez presented a mature and poised performance as Jessa, the young girl lost and alone in a night of bitter cold.
Mack Rhinelander was magnificent as the crazed assassin John Wilkes Booth, who plots with others in the Surratt boarding house and stalks Lincoln on one of the holiest of Christian nights.
The staging of the play was similar to productions in New York and Boston. The setting was sparse, with only enough props to identify difference locations around the capital and the surrounding battlefields. Period costuming helped the audience keep track of the multiple characters as they moved in and out of the action.
The musical pieces are well-known songs from that period, and were specifically arranged as part of the drama. Music Director Pastor David Stanton led the musicians and chorus in a near-professional performance.
Being staged in a church rather than a theater made this production all the more remarkable. Wahlquist used various levels of platforms to separate different action and suggest movement throughout the city or in the countryside. Elizabeth Keckley’s quilt-covered chair was positioned on a high platform over the church organ. Many of the characters had individual microphones, and general microphones were hanging overhead.
This particular production was guided by the Downey Arts Coalition, but it was funded by the First Baptist Church of Downey as a gift to the community. FBCD normally presents a performance every Christmas and Wahlquist has directed three in the past. But the scope and nature of this performance was unique.
All of the pastors performed in the play, and it was Pastor Rich Holt who provided access to the period costumes. Holt is a fan and participant in Civil War re-enactments and the Northern and Southern uniforms gave the play a very authentic look.
Wahlquist says that she is looking forward to other projects for Downey next year.
Published: December 20, 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 36