WASHINGTON — 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.
The National Civil War Project announced Thursday in Washington will involve programming over the next two years to mark the 150th anniversary of the war between North and South. Beyond commissioning new works, organizers plan for university faculty to integrate the arts into their academic programs on campus.
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 from each region.
At Harvard, a 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 compose an 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 an 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 in the context of issues that resonate today in American life, from gay rights and gun rights to voting rights in the states.
“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.
Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE plans to commission new works about Maryland’s unique role as a border state where slavery was legal and Confederate sympathies ran deep, even though it was held by the North.
“In such a tiny little state, we become this microcosm of the U.S.,” said Gavin Witt, the associate artistic director at CENTERSTAGE.
The theater will premiere a new musical piece at a Civil War battlefield entitled “At War With Ourselves,” complete with a 500-voice choir and poetry. It’s also commissioning a British playwright to explore international perspectives on the war, drawing on the complex relationship between Europe and the U.S. then.
Choreographer Liz Lerman, a 2002 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, helped develop the partnerships between theaters and universities. She said artists can help professors animate their scholarship, calling the Civil War a good subject for connecting art with 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,” exploring the role of women and innovations in healing for amputees from the Civil War through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Characters will migrate between past and present. The piece will feature actor Bill Pullman and eight dancers.
Arena Stage is also commissioning 25 playwrights to contribute to a new piece entitled “Our War” about the battles, Reconstruction and its aftermath.
By the end, the effort will have created a new body of works on the Civil War with 12 artistic commissions and others created by students.
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian, has been leading the university to integrate the arts with academic pursuits.
“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 project.
On the war’s 150th anniversary, 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 war transformed American history, culture and industry — even the concept of American democracy as it redefined equality.
He said tackling such a subject between academia and theater could provide a new model for learning: “It’s an experiment 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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