'A Civil War Christmas' meditates on race, community and the holiday

By Kate Masur
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 4:52 PM

It is Christmas Eve 1864, and somewhere in Virginia, an enslaved man named Willy Mack Lee stands next to his dejected owner, Robert E. Lee. "We've lost the war," the general laments.

"Yes, sir, you have," Willy answers.

Mary Todd Lincoln, shopping for a Christmas tree, meets Mary Surratt, proprietor of a boarding house where conspirators plot to attack the president. For a moment, the two women share a lament about Confederate loss of life. Then they move on, each to her own very different fate.

A mother and daughter, fugitives from slavery, seek freedom in the Union capital but encounter an unfriendly sentinel at the bridge over the Potomac. The mother sends the girl onward in the cold, instructing her to look for Abraham Lincoln at the "largest white plantation house in town."

Washington and its environs are the heart of Paula Vogel's musical drama, "A Civil War Christmas," playing through Dec. 26 at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill. This play reminds us that Civil War Washington was a place where North and South collided, where the nation's most powerful men met fugitive slaves on the streets, and where African Americans found freedom and forged community.

Vogel, a D.C. native who has been a playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage, has written a play that meditates on race, family, community and the meaning of Christmas. In her wartime capital, everyone yearns for peace on Earth, but the war dampens the mood. Motherhood and parental tenderness are emphasized in vignettes about slave children sold in the South, sons sacrificed to war, a solitary slave girl, and a white Virginia boy's fascination with Mosby's raiders. Washington is figured as a latter-day Bethlehem.

All the while, Christmas carols mingle with slave spirituals and other American folk songs, a paean to the dignity of common people and the pluralism of American culture.

As the Civil War sesquicentennial gets under way, Vogel's drama is a model of how the raw material of Civil War history can be molded into provocative and entertaining art for our own time. Abraham Lincoln was notorious for brushing off threats on his life. In the play, his security chief, Ward Lamon, wrings his hands about the president's heedlessness, just as he does in Margaret Leech's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Reveille in Washington" (1942).

In one storyline, Vogel portrays Mary Todd Lincoln's close relationship with her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave. In an early scene, Keckley talks Mrs. Lincoln out of a spending spree and reminds her that the best Christmas gift to her husband would be "the gladness of your heart." Keckley herself wrote a memoir, "Behind the Scenes" (1868), and the women's complex relationship was recently the subject of a dual biography: "Jennifer Fleischner's Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly" (2004).

Another subplot features Sgt. Decatur Bronson, an accomplished black soldier, who is first seen chanting "take no prisoners" as he hammers at an anvil. The context here, as James McPherson explains in "Battle Cry of Freedom" (1988), is the Confederacy's refusal to recognize captured black soldiers as prisoners of war. Confederates often sold black captives into slavery or murdered them in cold blood. Bronson promises retribution at the beginning of the play, but his desire for vengeance is challenged in the ensuing action.

"White writers, too, need to do the research and the work on race," Vogel notes at the beginning of the script, thanking playwright Anna Deavere Smith for productive conversations on race. Taking that injunction seriously, Vogel depicts African Americans' relationship to the United States with considerable subtlety. Black soldiers' commitments are double: to the United States but also, somewhat independently, to black liberation. One African American character refers to Keckley as "our first lady."

The play's hopeful ending offers seasonal theatergoers a gulp of good cheer. But Vogel also emphasizes the painful and unresolved legacies of slavery. A sentry tells the fugitive mother who hopes to find freedom in Washington that there's no more room for "you people." Later she is directed to the tradesmen's entrance of the Lincoln White House, while her daughter suffers hypothermia in the city streets. A member of the chorus asks: "Who knew freedom would be so cold?"

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