By Jocelyn Clarke, American Voices New Play Institute Dramaturg
From its conception, Our War was a very ambitious project: to commission 25 playwrights from all over the country to write short monologues about the Civil War and its historical, political and socio-cultural legacies. And then to present all 25 plays on stage over two nights, which an ensemble of six actors would perform, playing a myriad of characters from different backgrounds, places and eras.
Each of the playwrights, who include awarding-winning playwrights and brand new playwrights among their number, has written an original play about the Civil War with a unique perspective on its various legacies. Some are set in the historical period of the Civil War and some are set in the contemporary moment, but all of them share two impulses: to interpret and to interrogate anew not only the historical versions but also the contemporary meanings of a civil conflict on American soil, which not only divided a nation but which divisions the nation has yet arguably to either resolve or reconcile fully.
What playwright would take on such a daunting task of writing a short monologue about the Civil War? To say that all of the 25 playwrights rose to the challenge is an understatement; what they did instead was to seize it, wrestle with it and transform it into an opportunity to create compelling pieces of drama for a solo performer. Whether engaging with issues of race, gender, identity, sexuality, and class or exploring ideas of history and memory, destiny and mission, duty and loyalty, each play found a distinctive approach to dramatic form and style, particularly in the relationship between performer and audience.
In my conversations with all the playwrights, as they developed their initial drafts towards performance, there was a remarkable willingness to dig deeper into their stories and characters, and to investigate further their ideas and their approaches to them — so much so that some of playwrights abandoned their first drafts and started again.
Our War was an invitation to 25 playwrights to consider a seminal event in American history and to write a play about it. Instead, they have come back with 25 plays that dramatize in very singular ways something that we sometimes forget in the hurly burly of the here and now as we rush headlong into the future: the Civil War is not over. Or in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
(Photo: Our War playwrights)