Paula Vogel's Play "A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration" comes to the Taproot Theater

By Carla Bell
December 2, 2017

Abraham Lincoln (Robert Gallaher) and Mary Todd Lincoln (Marianne Savell) in A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration. Photo by Robert Wade.

Tucked into the dimly lit and cozy corners of Seattle’s Taproot Theatre Company, small groups huddled over hot drinks, sometimes wine. Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is a work of fiction based on American history. The play, first performed in Connecticut almost ten years ago, is described by the Seattle Times as “a deeper theatrical contemplation” in contrast to the usual holiday entertainment.

In the pre-show appeal to this captive audience of possible donors, actors in character spoke briefly to “the better angels of their nature”, then we were taken inside Vogel’s 1864, as directed by Faith Bennett Russell and Karen Lund.

It begins beneath the American flag and a starry sky in Washington, D.C., with Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Gallaher) sitting, head hung in shame, coming to terms with defeat and admitting it, incidentally, to a young Black serviceman (Jelani Kee).

Throughout the play are undeniable truths about Black self-sufficiency, ingenuity, craftsmanship, spirituality – clairvoyance, some might say – and heart. Born a slave, “Lizzie” (Dedra D. Woods) followed the example and advice of her mother, Agnes Hobbs, that she should take up sewing. Agnes explained to Lizzie that her biological father and owner, Mr. Burwell, “won’t sell you if you put your hands to use”. The play doesn’t mention that Lizzie was put to slave work by Mrs. Burwell at the age of four – a common form of indirect retribution laid upon slave women and their half-white children by wives of slave-owners, compounding the injuries of rape.

Eventually, Lizzie, short for Elizabeth Keckley, became seamstress to prominent folk in the capital city, including families of Confederates Jefferson Davis and General Lee, as well as President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary. In an unsettling remark indicating a perception and acceptance of her degraded station in comparison to her clientele, Lizzie is quoted saying, “I always thought that it would be more consistent with their dignity to send for me instead of their coming to me.”

Both popular history and this production present Lizzie as a confidant to the Lincolns. Lizzie and so many like her might have been considered confidants but only to the degree achievable as property under ownership. Not peers though – not as freemen, and certainly not as slaves.

In one particularly disturbing scene, Mary Lincoln asked Lizzie what she’d like for Christmas, and she responded, “I want the glove of Mr. Lincoln, the man who signed the Proclamation”. As beneficiaries of education in American history – thin, slanted, and incomplete as it may be – we have some understanding now about Lincoln’s decision and intentions on emancipation of slaves. We also know that Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but rather a proponent of anti-slavery, which is not the same as being in favor of racial equity and against slavery. So, we should finally cease our romantic ideas about Abraham Lincoln and begin to correct the record.

“…I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race…” (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln)

The bird’s eye view and rose-colored presentation of Elizabeth Keckley, the play’s central character, adds a layer of difficulty to the artificial sweetness of this slave-era story. Keckley’s Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868) would likely provide balance.

A Civil War Christmas is fast-moving and upbeat, in spite of, and perhaps mismatched to, its subject. In their faces, and in the way they held and carried themselves across the stage, several members of the cast relayed intense emotion, more in this way at times than with words. Remarkably, some of the Black actors transitioned in-and-out of white character, bringing forth believable characterizations of prominent Civil War era whites. The cast harmonized well in songs, Woods’ solos were soulful, crisp, and bold; and the youngest of the cast, Evangeline OpongParry who played Jessa, was adorable and fun to watch – owning the stage at 7 years old. Audiences will enjoy the wardrobe detail for this cast of many characters, and appreciate the choreography. The skill of the cast, musicians, and production team almost seems to have outweighed the story itself.

Vogel received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play How I Learned to Drive and a Tony for Indecent. These daring stories push the audience to explore what’s beneath the surface, and actually provides depth to explore – missed opportunities in A Civil War Christmas, which handles an incredibly tragic and still tender wound of American history as more of a prop than a foundation.

Still, if it’s a gleeful family holiday outing that you want, this production is unlikely to embarrass nor disappoint. It’s very nice, light, unassuming, non-threatening, and sanitized. (I don’t think there was one mention of the word Nigger, and that alone makes any Civil War story much more fiction than fact.)

Nice warms the heart. Nice is neither agitating nor demanding. Rarely is nice compelling or even thought-provoking, and sometimes nice just isn’t real.

A Civil War Christmas runs through December 30th. For ticketing and more information, visit Taproot Theatre.

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Carla Bell is a Seattle-based writer and abolitionist engaged in restorative justice and civil rights advocacy, supporting community resilience and healing, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.