Playwright Paula Vogel hopes “A Civil War Christmas,” which imagines what Yuletide in 1864 meant to an array of fictional and historical figures, will become an “American ‘Christmas Carol.’ ”
If you like your holiday entertainment merry and bright, candy-cane sweet, or campy and burlesqued, there’s plenty to choose from in Seattle this season.
However, if you’re willing to trade in the tinsel and holly for a deeper theatrical contemplation of the season, consider Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas.” Her holiday play with music, which has been staged across the country and Off Broadway since its 2008 debut, at last has its Seattle premiere on Nov. 24 at Taproot Theatre.
No jolly Santa, frisky elves or grouchy Scrooge will be in sight in this show. The setting is Washington, D.C., on a chilly Dec. 24, 1864. America is battle-weary and the Civil War is not yet over, though the Union Army has made deep inroads into Confederate territory.
“A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration”
By Paula Vogel. Through Dec. 30 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $20-$50 (206-781-9707 or taproottheatre.org)
Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops have invaded Georgia, as the commander wired to the newly re-elected U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 22: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah. …”
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But what was there to celebrate with more than 600,000 soldiers (Union and Confederate) lost in battle? And what was the mood in the U.S. capital of a starkly divided nation that had not yet made peace with itself?
In “A Civil War Christmas,” Vogel imagines what that Yuletide meant to an array of historical and fictional figures, among them Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. And these theatrical cameos are enriched with music from the same period, including African spirituals, Christmas carols and marching songs.
“This play came to me in a flash as an idea,” Vogel, a 2017 Tony Award nominee for her play “Indecent,” explained by phone. “I was feeling, Oh, we’re only doing Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” again for the holidays. Then I suddenly thought, Why don’t we look at issues that continue to hurt us and haunt us as a nation?”
Vogel was raised in the greater Washington, D.C., area (“anyone who grows up in D.C. is an amateur Civil War historian”), so the capital setting was a natural for her. Her play unfolds on a Christmas Eve there, during a search for Christmas trees (hard to find, since many trees were felled to keep the troops warm), a presidential holiday gift, and for freedom from bondage.
According to Taproot staffer Karen Lund, who is codirecting the local production with Faith Bennett Russell, the theater chose to depart from its more traditional Christmas fare because of the political polarization in America today. “It just seemed like it was the time to remember that we’ve been in a place before where our nation was divided,” Lund said, “where people thought they were right on both sides to the point where they could no longer have a conversation, so they had a war. We wanted to talk about the light piercing the darkness, and that even in a dark time, there are values we can all hold on to.”
Vogel said she was eager to look at both race and class in a historical context, and especially to acknowledge some of the lesser-known stories of African Americans. The workers who “built the White House” and other government buildings were slaves, she pointed out. And among those who gained their freedom were people who went on to high achievements.
While writing, Vogel set out to share such stories with the youths in her extended family. (Taproot recommends the show for people age 12 and older.) “I put on my auntie hat because I wanted them to know that this is our history, this is our legacy, and in some ways we’re still fighting the Civil War. It’s not done and over. Slavery is our country’s original sin, and I have to say I’m horrified we haven’t gotten past the [racism].”
One real-life figure Vogel focused on was Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a primary character in the script. A former slave, Keckley built a successful career as a Washington, D.C., seamstress for Mrs. Lincoln and other prominent ladies, and established a charity to assist freed slaves and wounded soldiers.
“She was the most extraordinary woman, and the confidant of both Lincoln and the first lady,” Vogel said. “She also became a much respected philanthropist and activist in the African-American community.”
Another character, Decatur Bronson, is a semi-fictional amalgam of two of the more than a dozen black Union soldiers who earned the Medal of Honor for bravery. To show the plight of separated families, Vogel also invented a fictional slave mother-and-daughter pair. Separated in their flight to freedom, they hope to meet up at the White House.
President Lincoln has a place in the multi-stranded storyline, too, as do Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate loyalists, including the actor John Wilkes Booth (who would assassinate Lincoln just a few months later, in April 1865).
“My sympathies are on the Union side,” Vogel acknowledged,” but I also wanted to understand how people don’t really see the evil being done around them. They might have all the traits of empathy and compassion but don’t see directly how their society is organized around slavery. I think if Lincoln had lived he would have shown some compassion toward the slave owners after the war, while still pointing out the error of their ways.”
The healing balm of music is also prominent: “I listened to literally hundreds of songs while I was writing,” Vogel said. “At Christmastime what do we do? We embrace the pageantry, the voices, the lights and the music. I actually arranged the whole play around music.”
Lund said there will be several musicians onstage at Taproot, including musical director Edd Key. And the song list includes “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (a spiritual indicating the Big Dipper as a map for escaped slaves heading north), the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” a traditional folk song sung by a man searching for his kidnapped wife.
The show features a diverse ensemble of Seattle actor-singers including Tyler Trerise, Marianne Savell, and Robert Gallaher as Lincoln. And by happenstance, this version of “A Civil War Christmas” occurs in a period when the removal of statues commemorating Lee and other prominent Confederates from public spaces has sparked clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters, notably in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person was killed.
“I’m afraid our country has been growing more divisive every year,” Vogel said with a sigh. She said she wants “A Civil War Christmas,” with its message of hope for peace and unity amid national discord, to become “an American ‘Christmas Carol’ for my family and every family. And wouldn’t it be good to do the show in Charlottesville? What a great idea.”
“One of my favorite lines in the play,” said Lund, “has to do with the hope for peace the characters are experiencing, because at that time in history they can see the war’s end coming and in the winter the armies would stand down.”
That line: “The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself.”