Every year, dozens and dozens of Revolutionary and Civil War battles comprised of hundreds to thousands of people are enthusiastically re-enacted across the country. Substantial money and resources are expended. To “Hard-cores”/ “Progressives,” authenticity is paramount. “There are moments you disappear. Your character takes over.” “FARBS”= Far Off Resembles British, those less committed, are disparaged. Re-enactments may be public or “total immersion,” untainted by observers.
Playwright Talene Monahon spent five years interviewing ersatz soldiers. (Re-enactments can also utilize faux civilians.) It shows. How to Load a Musket, in her subjects’ original words, is so dense with fascinating historical information and range of perspective, it makes one feel as if the material should be read to take it all in.
United by passion for history, fraternity, honor, and catharsis, men invest year after year in these stagings. There are documented cases of women disguising gender to fight, but women outside of civilian roles are rare.
Eight actors play multiple characters coming forward, sometimes jointly, with stories. These include a Spanish woman (Nicole Villamil), an African American playing two people of very different motivation (David J. Cork), a Bostonian (Lucy Taylor), an easy going southerner (Richard Topol) and one whose accent seems from the Bronx (Adam Chanler-Berat.) Also in the cast are Ryan Spahn and Andy Taylor, the latter as a good-old-boy dentist named Larry in whose plastered-wall office the piece is set.
Intermittent blackouts allow those costume/role changes not manifest by taking military jackets and hats off well stocked, evocatively decorated walls by Scenic Designer Lawrence E. Moten III. (Bravo.) Battle sounds rise and fall when appropriate. (Sound Design-Jim Petty)
When there are not enough re-enactors on one side, some switch. “You’re all Americans and you gotta have someone to shoot at.” Others find a niche. “I play George Washington as a real person, with faults.” “It’s a family thing, so I personally chose to fight on the Southern side.” There are web sites, discussion groups, and tours.
Costumes are copiously researched and reproduced, often by hand. (One is analyzed on stage.) Proudly parading in these outside of battle is common. Events can include historically accurate meals and rough camping. One man got deeply into chocolate and grog. A “Mainstream” subject maintains masquerade only in public, admitting to Monahon the inside of his tent contained modern conveniences.
Participants are taught to load weapons properly. (For the record, though no bullets are used; if you’re close enough injury can occur.) “There are 13 different things you do from half-cocked to firing. A very good soldier could fire four times in a minute.” Actors draw lots for where and when they “take a hit” or get captured. Watching one’s friends fall can be difficult. Buildings are sometimes loosely constructed and burned down to group exhilaration. Guns inevitably come into the conversation. “Now what we got is socialism. We’re being told to give up our weapons.”
“The Confederate Flaggers (one such re-enactment group) erected Confederate flags all across the state. It’s like they’re still fighting the war.” Opinions on relevance to contemporary politics are offered. The Minute Men refused to march at the inauguration. “Maybe that’s why people do it, so they don’t have to deal with what’s currently happening.” “I’m in the army ROTC. What would I have done then? I’d’ve fought for Virginia.”
A black man rails against tearing down Confederate monuments, then says he’s tired of being lumped with racists. “My parents were reformers.” The actor’s alternate role is activist/artist Dread Scott who, in 2019, lead 500 re-enactors on a two day, 26 mile march upriver to New Orleans. The journey marked 1811’s German Coast Uprising intended to free as many slaves as possible. This one ended in cultural celebration. Imagine the disconnect of walking by strip malls, gas stations, and mostly hostile spectators. “It was difficult to get blacks interested in playing ex-slaves.”
Three fourths of the way into Monahan’s script, we’re in a New York subway car with the playwright (Carolyn Braver) revealing her own discomfited conclusions to Scott. “I’m increasingly aware of my own subjectivity.” The entire section feels tacked on. Anything important should have been included in the body of dramatization. Her own revelations might successfully be shared in a program author’s note.
The worthy piece is thoroughly engaging. It illuminates an iconoclastic genre and its relationship to today’s politics. That we’re condemned to repeat our mistakes is a valuable, unspoken theme. Surfeit of histories and detail, however, makes the audience struggle to digest something with another so quick on its heels. Editing is needed.
Actors Carolyn Braver, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol, and David J. Cork stand out.
Director Jaki Bradley might slow pace to better allow comprehension. There are often too many non-particpating actors on stage. (Were they in the dark, this might better serve.) A wide roster of accents work, but personas played by Chanler-Beret and Spahn distractingly sound as if they have emphysema. Explain this to me.
Photos by Russ Rowland