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Finding Downey’s Voice

I stumbled upon A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel one year ago. I shared it with our Christmas show production team at First Baptist Church of Downey, and we all immediately fell in love with its themes of forgiveness, loving one’s enemies, unity, and race relations. We immediately applied for the rights and waited. Meanwhile, a few significant stumbling blocks at the church made it clear that producing this show would be impossible this year. In hindsight, this was a godsend, as I was still working on my MA thesis and needed the fall months to complete it. God knows what He is doing.

During the last year and a half, my husband and I have been running the Downey Arts Coalition, a collective of artists, activists, and arts & culture lovers. Our activity with the DAC has been a tremendous introduction to a city we’ve known our whole lives. We have been involved more actively in the community than ever before, and we have been privileged to not only meet many wonderful new friends, but also to admire the collective diversity and unity that is unique to the Downey community. I must admit– now more than ever– I love my city. This community is quite special.

Local communities are the building blocks of this country, but if you look at our nation as a whole, we are divided. We are polarized. We avoid those whose ideas and opinions differ from ours. We demonize the other side. Even Christian brothers and sisters divide themselves along ethnic, denominational, and political lines.

Downey, this is not who we are! And for Christians, it is certainly not how the Bible calls us to live. We ought to remember our commonalities, rejoice in the fundamentals of our faith and values, and love one another. Even if there are enemies, Jesus admonished us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

It is these principals and themes that ring out strong in A Civil War Christmas. This is a play that follows several different story lines and tells the tales of many important individuals in and around Washington DC, 1864.

There is Bronson, the Black Union Soldier who worked his way up to Sergeant but carries a grudge like a heavy burden. His motto, “take no prisoners,” gets challenged by the very words of Jesus on stage.

Then there is Elizabeth Keckley, a strong and determined former slave who bought her own freedom from the money she earned as a seamstress. But she also carries a heavy burden– her only son was killed in battle and she feels his death is her punishment for teaching him the hate she harbored in her heart.

Then there is Raz, the young confederate boy eager to fight and win a battle everyone says is lost. In the end, he will be shown a grace greater than any sin.

Mary Surratt is a passionate confederate sympathizer who owns the boarding house where conspirators meet to plot the assassination of President Lincoln. But when she accidentally runs into Mary Todd Lincoln on the street, she bonds with her as one mother to another, and together they mourn the losses their hometowns have suffered in the war.

And then there is Chester Manton Saunders, who was brought up in a devout Quaker home. Catching on to his mother’s strong Christian faith, he believes ardently in the abolitionist cause and the “divine spark in every man.” His faith will not allow him to fight in the war, but he joins the army anyway, serving under Decatur Bronson, and helping the unit out in any non-combat way he possibly can. When he realizes Bronson is about to commit murder, he knows time will allow no better intervention than prayer, and his mother’s faith urges him to call upon the Father. The answer to his prayer will astound you.

Our congregation cannot support the demanding ensemble this play requires. So, out of necessity and perhaps divine intervention, we feel compelled to reach out to our sister church in Lynwood in partnership. This is the part that really excites me. Because this play is all about unity, brotherhood, and Christians coming together during turbulent times to work toward a common good. And so with this partnership we attempt to do just that. If this succeeds, we will be bringing the lofty ideas off the stage and into real life. This partnership is an opportunity for our congregations to come together in unity and brotherhood and abolish the differences that would divide us. What would usually just be figurative, only represented on stage, we wish to make literal, and practice in real life.

We always say that FBCD’s Christmas show is a gift to the community. Well, this year will be a gift like no other. I have directed the FBCD Christmas show several times now and I always do it because I want to serve my church and serve the Lord. (And because it’s fun.) But this year, I have new eyes.  I truly want to do something special in this community and I believe in the strong message of this play. I have always believed that FBCD is a special sub-culture within Downey and I believe we as a church are well-suited to be giving this gift at this time. This play will meet us where we are as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

Oh, and did I mention that we are currently remembering the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots?

I hope that the whole congregation at FBCD will rally around this play, so that it will truly be a gift from the whole church, and not just a few members. There are still some auditions left, so if that is your interest please come audition or talk to David about singing in the choir. If not, there are many other opportunities to serve such as set/props construction and coordination, stage management, costume coordination, stage hands, PR, Tech Team, and by telling others in the community and bringing a group to attend the performance. As usual, all performances are free. Theatre is not an art of isolation. We are moving a mountain here, and it’s going to take an army.

This play has something to say, and I want to help it find its voice in Downey. Will you join me?

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5 Comments to “Finding Downey’s Voice”

  1. This is a wonderful project, and a wonderful adventure! I share your thoughts about the Downey Arts Coalition and the reviving “arts scene” in Downey – these activities have re-awakened in many of us an appreciation for our community and all the diverse people in it.

  2. [...] of my favorite characters in A Civil War Christmas is the small role of Mary Surratt. She only appears in one scene in our play, but she was a major [...]

  3. [...] of our leading roles in A Civil War Christmas is a name you might not remember from the history books. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Keckley was an [...]

  4. [...] leading man in A Civil War Christmas, portrayed by the very talented Manuel Garay, is a symbolic character the playwright named Dacatur [...]

  5. [...] first venture into the musical genre, and it is a real winner. I’ve talked before about how important this piece is, so I won’t get into that again. The show has come and gone–swiftly as sand through the [...]

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