‘The Civil War’ at The Barn reminds us what real national division looks like
AUGUSTA, Mich.–When it comes to war, there are no end of stories or ways to tell them. Some of our most ancient stories are those of the times when men have turned swords against each other for reasons as varied as the men who fight them.
When it comes to U.S. history, no war has been as deadly or divisive as our Civil War, the subject of a musical that is opening the summer season at Augusta Barn. In the musical, written by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, there are three sides to the war presented: That of the Union soldiers, the Confederate soldiers, and perhaps most crucially, that of the slaves.
It’s a musical that tries to accomplish a lot, for covering an entire war is no small task. The Civil War tries to strike a balance between the sides, presenting the stories of the people who fought in it, the people most affected by it. It was a story told where the generals were never named nor were most well-known historical figures with the exception of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Some soldiers were named, but the officers were titled just that—Union Officer and Confederate Officer.
The strength of this show, directed by Brendan Ragotzy, is in the voices of its performers and the moving nature of the songs, especially as it progresses from the upbeat optimism at the beginning to the hopelessness and despair of a war where more than half a million Americans died.
The Barn Theater likes to bring back guest artists for starring roles and this production features two of them—Robert Newman, who spent 28 years starring in the TV soap “Guiding Light and has spent the past several years at the Barn, a place he now calls his “home theater.” The other is Fee Waybill, the former front man for the Tubes, who has also made several Barn appearances in the past decade. The former played the leading Union officer while the latter played a Confederate officer.
Newman has an amazing voice that fills the Barn with soulful tunes. He’s a powerful presence that is just right for setting the stage for all the serious underpinnings of this musical. He opens the musical with “Brother, My Brother” and clearly establishes himself as the heart of this show and its haunting narrator.
While the musical strikes a balance between the blue and the gray at the beginning, things soon shift as a row of slaves are brought out to be auctioned. Some people may argue that the war was about state’s rights or preserving the union, but The Civil War makes it very clear that the crucial element of the war, the reason it was fought, was slavery. It does this by showing us real people and the pain that they suffer.
The Civil War draws upon the best traditions of Negro spirituals and the African Americans performing them in this production are nothing short of stunning. This is especially true of Shinnerrie Jackson as Bessie and Rendell Debose as Clayton. They are a husband and wife separated when their masters sell them. She has also borne 13 children, most of them to her master, who has sold them all away from her.
Their songs and the performances of them are heart-wrenching. Jackson in particular plays a role that makes one of the most powerful statements and powerful stories of the entire musical. There is a sequence where she repeatedly asks, “Ain’t I a Woman?” that challenges all the previous songs the Confederate soldiers sing about fighting to protect their way of life.
While most of the musical is serious, there are several light-hearted moments as well, from Union Soldiers relying on their “Be Joyful” moonshine to get them through the day to Waybill’s song about his Old Grey Coat.
The set for this show is simple, with one of the most interesting elements the six flags hanging from the ceiling. On stage right are three historical Union flags, each with slightly different designs. On stage left are three historical Confederate flags, all different in color and layout.
The main backdrop provides a screen for constant projections. While projections are increasingly used in theaters to great effect, in this show they were distracting. There were some great pictures—almost all of them were historical, authentic photos done in black and white. But they distracted from the main performances. It seemed like a movie where the actors were constantly getting in the way, a scene stealer. It also made the actors seem out of place and time in their live and living colors vs. the black and white of the images.
It was especially distracting at the opening of act two when there were really interesting details about battles and casualties being projected—but they were usually obscured by the very powerful song being sung by soldiers of both sides, “How Many Devils?”
Other technical distractions came with the spotlight which almost never hit its mark and wandered around looking for the performers’ faces.
“The Civil War” is not a musical that is often done, perhaps because of the challenge of trying to tell the story of a war without really letting you get to know characters as anything outside archetypes, but there is a lot in it that is compelling. The music, a mixture of folk, country, and spirituals, is compelling and entertaining.
It’s a musical that feels especially compelling at a time when things are divisive in our country. It sounds a warning of the cost of freedom, the cost of fighting, the cost of turning brother against brother and tearing apart families.