Four major universities are joining theater companies in Boston, Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta in a project to commission new plays, music and dance compositions about the Civil War and its lasting legacy 150 years later.
The National Civil War Project is being announced Thursday in Washington and will involve programming over the next two years to mark the 150th anniversary of the war between the North and the South. Beyond commissioning new works, organizers plan for university faculty to integrate the arts into their academic programs on campus.
Under the program, Harvard University will partner with the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.; the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center will join CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore; George Washington University is working with Arena Stage in Washington, and Atlanta's Alliance Theatre will join Emory University.
Each collaboration will evoke unique perspectives on the Civil War in each region.
At Harvard, a new piece called "The Boston Abolitionists" about the abolitionist movement and the trial of a fugitive slave will be performed in May. Separately, Matthew Aucoin, an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, is using Walt Whitman's poetry about being a medic to develop a new opera.
In Atlanta, Alliance Theatre and Emory will develop a new theatrical production of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Native Guard," with a workshop planned for 2014. It recounts the story of a black Civil War regiment assigned to guard white Confederate soldiers on Ship Island off Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, who helped guide the project, said this is a chance to reevaluate the Civil War and consider the issues that still resonate in American life.
"This is an anniversary of what is arguably one of the most important times in American history," she said. "And the same questions behind state rights and civil rights continue to infuse who we are as a country."
In September, the University of Maryland will host a national conference on civil rights and health disparities among minority populations to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Choreographer Liz Lerman, a 2002 MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow, helped in developing the partnerships between theaters and universities during a semester spent at Harvard. She said artists can help professors animate their scholarship as more traditional lectures move online, and the Civil War is a good subject to connect art and academics.
"It's something about the fact that we're still trying to understand it," Lerman said. "There are enough civil wars still going on in the world, I myself am trying to understand what it must be like."
Lerman is developing a new dance theater piece in Washington called "Healing Wars" to explore the role of women and innovations in healing for amputees from the Civil War through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Characters will migrate between past and present. The piece will feature actor Bill Pullman and eight dancers.
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian, has been leading the university to integrate the arts with academic pursuits, through theater, exhibits or other art forms.
"Engaging students through art and art-making is one of the ways in which universities prepare young women and men for life in a world that is far better connected and far more complex than at any other point in human history," she wrote in an email about the Civil War project.
At this anniversary of the war, she said it's important to remember how the values of freedom and equality were defined in President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address as the war's purpose.
George Washington University President Steven Knapp said the Civil War transformed American history, culture and industry — even the concept of American democracy by redefining equality. Tackling such a subject between academia and theater could provide a new model for learning, he said.
"It's an experiment," Knapp said, "to see how far we can go in bringing together the strengths of the university and the strengths of the theater company."
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