Posts Tagged civil war

A Civil War Christmas: A Retrospective

16 January 2013

President Lincoln, General Lee, General Grant, Wordsworth Longfellow, and the ensemble, all from opposite sides of the Potomac sing 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'

This past fall I had the privilege to direct a very unique and powerful play, perhaps one of the most universally moving pieces in American theatre today. A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s 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 fingers–and life since has moved on far too quickly. But the effect that the show had on all of our lives– those of us in the cast, in the church, and in the community– will be lasting and cannot be undone.

Our short 3-performance run turned out around 1,400 people in all, packing the house out at around 600 the last night. I proudly had to give up my seat in the upper balcony that night. The cast, made up of church members, members of our sister church True Vine, and a few random community members I met through Downey Arts Coalition, many of whom have never been in a play before, turned out surprising and powerful performances, which left raw emotions, and newly realized familiar old music lingering in the mind.

Worship Arts Pastor David Stanton portrayed the abolitionist, pacifist Quaker soldier, Chester Manton Saunders

The long process was a journey of journeys. We hit the ground running after a long and stressful casting period. It is not easy to cast a play with 80 characters spread out over 27 cast members, navigating scene overlaps, actor schedules, and costume changes. We didn’t receive either the rights to the play or the music until nearly halfway through the process (thanks Dramatist Play Service!!), and bearing the heavy weight of responsibility for such an important production proved to be a heavy burden on my mind and my family. Yet nonetheless, by the grace of God, a lot of faith, and the patient, steadfast support of those whose shared this vision, we saw this thing through until the glorious end. And it was worth everything.

To explain some of the pictures here, the visual look of the opening went through many phases. I finally settled on the above configuration in the eleventh hour. This is a good example of how the staging of this play was more complicated than I expected, with things happening all over the stage simultaneously, spanning different times and spaces, inter-cutting like a movie. So glad we had all the levels and staging areas that the FBCD sanctuary had to offer.

A young Elizabeth Keckley is taught to sew by her mother, desperate to give her daughter a trade that will make her valuable and save her life

Just want to point out a few very memorable performances. Newcomer Rafaela Ramirez turned out a heartfelt and moving performance as Aggie, the mother of Elizabeth Keckley in a flashback scene. Ramirez portrayed many characters and all her performances were solid as a rock. I was thrilled to direct our Pastor of Worship Arts and my dear friend, David Stanton (pictured above), as the abolitionist¬†Quaker union soldier, Chester Manton Saunders. Working alongside him was another newcomer, Manual Garay, who brought a devastatingly delicate strength to the brooding Decatur Bronson, a black union soldier who carries a heavy burden of both rage and sorrow. Senior Pastor Steve Shangraw demonstrated once again his range and depth with the vast array of characters and songs he performed. Even the smallest role was fully realized both internally and physically. I told him if this whole pastor thing doesn’t pan out, he could always fall back on a career in the theatre. ūüėČ And lastly, youngster Daniel Frometa had great range and depth in his many roles, spanning from a wounded soldier who predicts the Lincoln assassination, to a young confederate willing to shed every drop of blood for his country.

The climax of the play struck a powerful cord as a soldier must face the horrid circumstance of a dark and angry vow

We had some great publicity, thanks largely to an incredible postcard designed by Andrew. We are also very grateful to The Downey Patriot for covering our play twice before the opening, and printing a review after. The church submitted a brief informative article that appeared in the Community section, and DAC member Marisa Urutia Gedney wrote a great piece after an interview with me that was prominently placed in the paper and I think brought a lot of attention to our upcoming production. Then after the show, Patriot contributor and DAC member Carol Kearns was so moved by the performance that she penned a glowing review.

Life for me personally got very stressful during the last few weeks of rehearsal. The last few weeks of rehearsal are always very stressful, of course, but around Thanksgiving I was called in to substitute at Cerritos College again, teaching Fundamentals of Acting twice a week for a 4.5-hour class. I was so pleased to take the job, but the timing was a perfect storm. Using a babysitter is hard enough for me, but the fact that our family was spread out between Fullerton, Brea (the kids), Santa Monica (Andrew), and Norwalk (me), and then having to collect the kids and rush back to Downey for rehearsal at night, made life pretty tough. I generally hate fast food, but I confess it was a necessity during that time! We all got sick afterward, the kids became very clingy and needy, all of which just made me feel incredibly guilty. It was a relief afterward to be able to throw myself headfirst back into mothering full time after finals and the show closing.

Yet through all this, I have no regrets and still count even the hardest moments as a blessing for our whole family. ¬†Everyone had fun, and doing theatre together as a family (whatever that looks like) has always been a dream of Andrew’s and mine. I had the thought one night during all this, when I realized that I spend a couple of days per week right now warming up actors, critiquing scenes, and giving acting tips, I thought, “Wow, I’m doing it. I’m a real theatre professional. This is what I’m doing with my life.” Sure it’s not perfect. It’s at a church, my actors are amateurs, it’s “just Downey”… but on the other hand, by night I’m directing a new Paula Vogel play (!!), in a great space, with a very talented and dedicated cast, who will perform in front of a HUGE crowd, and by day I’m teaching college. It is not what I expected of my career when I began it 10 years ago, but it’s pretty great. I’m one lucky kid.

In addition, I was so proud that our five-year-old had his theatrical debut in this show. We really didn’t know if this would work out for him, because he is such a free spirit and isn’t that great at following directions, lol. =) But as the opening grew near, he became more and more eager to do it. The first night (dress rehearsal) a couple unexpected things happened for him and he ended up running around the stage looking for a spot to go to. I paired him up with a big kid the next night and all was well. I really think he is a performer at heart, so it was great to give him this inaugural opportunity. It was thrilling to see him get nervous, develop a plan with him, see him face his fears, and come out the other end feeling accomplished, excited, and relieved.

I’m so grateful to FBCD for believing in this play. It had a very powerful impact on so many people. I’m very thankful to all who supported the cast and crew in this effort. I’m thankful to all the community members who supported the production in a variety of ways, even just to come to the show. We really did something special in Downey that will have a lasting impact. We at the DAC have more ideas and plans for theatre in Downey, but none so huge as A Civil War Christmas. It will most certainly be the last of its kind for a while. But the future looks bright, and I am eager about what lies ahead.

Civil War Spotlight: Decatur Bronson & Black Union Soldiers

27 November 2012

Fort Pillow Massacre

Our leading man in A Civil War Christmas, portrayed by the very talented Manuel Garay, is a symbolic character the playwright named Decatur Bronson. His name is a combination of two war heroes who fought bravely for the Union: James H. Bronson (1838-1884) and Decatur Dorsey (1836-1891), but his story is emblematic of the many black union soldiers who courageously and sacrificially fought and died in what many considered to be the white man’s war.

The real-life Dorsey and Bronson were both recipients of the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, respectively for their courage and heroism in The Battle of Crater and The Battle of Chafin’s Farm. They were both born into slavery, and upon obtaining their freedom, instead of relishing in it, chose instead enlist to in the Army. Our character references The Battle of Fort Pillow (also named The Massacre at Fort Pillow), at which neither of the historical characters fought. Fort Pillow, however, was an important conflict in the African-American story. It is considered by many historians to be the most racially charged battle of the war, and the few black soldiers who escaped with their lives remember it as a massacre– with none of their surrendering black comrades being spared. A congressional committee later determined that over 300 black Americans were slain that day.

Our character carries with him the burden of that day, along with all the injustices he has lived in his lifetime. His beloved wife Rose (play by the lovely and haunting Essence Brown) was kidnapped off their own front porch and in Bronson’s words, “every Confederate I kill is a bridge to reach her.” His motto– mirroring the slaughter at Fort Pillow– is TAKE NO PRISONERS, and he is determined to kill every Confederate he encounters.

His vow, along with his anger and obsession, carry him viciously through the war until one day when he meets a young wannabe Confederate boy with barely any peach fuzz on his face. Raz’s (played by Daniel Frometa) youthful innocence and desperate poverty reminds Bronson a little too much of himself, despite his race and politics. The two share a powerful moment that will be sure not to leave a dry eye in the house.


A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel runs Dec 14, 15, & 16 at First Baptist Church of Downey at 7pm. 8348 E. Third St., Downey, Ca 90240. Tickets are free. Visit or or call (562) 923-1261.

Civil War Spotlight: Elizabeth Keckley

18 November 2012

One 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 emblematic representative of the arduous road to freedom traveled by numerous black Americans prior to emancipation. Played by Downey Arts Coalition member Aimee Calligari, you will be moved by the quite, strong grace of both the actress and character.

Born into slavery, Keckley was a strong, motivated woman. She said in her autobiography that when she was beaten as a young girl, she resisted her master and refused to cry or yell during the beating. Her master was eventually moved to tears by her fortitude, begged her forgiveness, and swore never to beat her again. Later, she was raped by a white man in the community and bore a son. Keckley named him George after her stepfather. Later in life, George joined the Union army and sadly died in the first battle he fought.

Keckley learned to sew at a young age and by her teenage years was adept at dressmaking. She spent most of her hours practicing this trade as a slave and hired woman. Playwright Paula Vogel often has her speaking of “putting her hands to use.” This skill became very useful to her, as it kept her from doing more laborious slave duties, built herself goodwill among important women, and eventually she used her earnings to buy her own freedom, and that of her young son.

She and her son later moved to Washington DC where she built a profitable business making dresses for the most elite patronage. Her career culminated when she became the seamstress to none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States.

It was not only her career that soared, but also her personal life. She and Mrs. Lincoln became fast friends and remained so for most of their lives. Keckley was known to be the only woman who could handle Mrs. Lincoln’s erratic moods. She was a confidante to her and the whole family.

It is exciting to feature this important woman in African-American history in our play. She was a pioneer for her race and her gender, breaking down every barrier known to her. She is remembered for her grace and fortitude, meekness and strength, and her ability to answer tragedy and hardship with courage and endurance. Be sure to catch this incredible portrayal, and see how she “puts her hands to use.”


A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel runs Dec 14, 15, & 16 at First Baptist Church of Downey at 7pm. 8348 E. Third St., Downey, Ca 90240. Tickets are free. Visit or call (562) 923-1261.

Finding Downey’s Voice

17 August 2012

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?

A Civil War Christmas Character Breakdown

8 August 2012

*Actors, feel free to email or facebook me with any questions

DECATUR BRONSON (Male, 20s-30s, African-American): A strong, intelligent, passionate Sergeant in the Union‚Äôs Colored Infantry. Carries a heavy grudge for the kidnappers of his late wife. His motto is ‚ÄúTake No Prisoners.‚ÄĚ

ELIZABETH KECKLEY (Female, 30s-40s, African-American): Mary Todd Lincoln’s companion; an expert with the needle, she has bought her life as a freewoman one stitch at a time. A thoughtful, introspective, caring woman who spent her childhood as a slave and lost her only son in the war.

MARY TODD LINCOLN (Female, 40s-50s, Caucasian): a devoted wife and mother, she also suffers from headaches and bouts with depression. She confides in her dear friend Keckley, and worries about her husband’s leadership in the war effort.

JOHN WILKES BOOTH (Male, 20s-40s, Caucasian): Lincoln’s assassin; an ambitious and passionate confederate conspirator; also a well-known stage actor.

CHESTER MANTON SAUNDERS (Male, 20s-30s): A young Quaker pacifist abolitionist in the Union army. Does not believe in war, but believes in the ‚Äúdivine spark in every man.‚ÄĚ Deeply religious, he cares passionately about the abolitionist cause.

HANNAH (Female, 20s-40s, African-American): An runaway slave escaping with her young daughter. Desperate for her daughter’s freedom and safety.

RAZ (Male, 12-17, Caucasian): A young ambitious confederate determined to fight with the Mosby Raiders, even if it costs him everything.

WIDOW MARY SURRATT (Female, 30s-40s): An ardent Confederate activist, she owns the boarding house where conspirators meet to plot the assassination of President Lincoln.

ANNA SURRATT (Female, 12-22): Daughter of Mary Surratt, part of a family of conspirators seeking the assassination of President Lincoln. A sweet girl devoted to her mother.

JAMES WORMLEY (male, 50s-60s, African American): a successful Washington DC merchant, born a freeman. Describes himself as ‚Äúshopkeeper, hack carriage company owner and all-around entrepreneur‚ÄĚ

FREDERICK WORMLEY (male, teens-20s) son of James Wormley

JIM WORMLEY (male, teens-20s) son of James Wormley

MOSES LEVY (Male, 20s-30s, Jewish) a wounded soldier who longs for his faith at Christmastime and who feverishly foretells Lincoln’s assassination

ROSE (Female, 20s-30s, African-American): A smart and beautiful young freewoman who taught her husband to read. Appears as a memory/spirit that haunts Bronson.

WALT WHITMAN (Male, 40s-50s, Caucasian): an important humanist poet who is known to visit wounded and dying soldiers in the hospital. He is a source of encouragement and friendship to many.

SECRETARY OF WAR, EDWIN STANTON (Male, 50s): a tough, efficient, and brilliant military mind whose strategies brought the Union Army to victory. He lost several members of his family to disease and suicide before throwing himself into his legal work and working determinedly in the Lincoln administration.

WARD HILL LAMON (Male, 20s-40s): Lincoln‚Äôs bodyguard and head of security; sees danger everywhere because ‚Äúdanger is everywhere to be seen.‚ÄĚ

GEORGE (Male, 20s-30s): Keckley‚Äôs only son, ‚Äúlight-skinned enough to pass as a white man,‚ÄĚ he secretly enlisted in the Union Army when his mother sent him away to college. Dying in the first battle he fought, he appears to Keckley as a ghost/memory throughout the play.

JESSA (Female, 5-14, African-American): following her mother as they escape slavery and head north into Washington DC. A brave and trusting young woman.

LITTLE JOE (Male, 5-12), a young slave boy who gets sold in the family’s attempt to recover from financial ruin.

ROBERT E. LEE (Male, 50s-60s): General of the Army of Northern Virginia, leader of the Confederate cause, his surrender effectively ended the Civil War. He is a passionate leader, who does not seek privileges over his soldiers.

ULYSSES S. GRANT (Male, 40s, Caucasian): the Union general who led the north to victory. He is weary of the war, but determined in his cause.