It’s a convenient set-up. Two Civil War reenactors, Cal (David Coupe) and Tom (Eric Lindahl), hit the bar after the Battle of Gettysburg and find Leah (Stephanie Mattos), a black woman sitting at Cal and Tom’s usual table dressed as a confederate soldier. They are immediately called to question their biases, and who “should” or “shouldn’t” be allowed to explore and experience American history. Smartly directed by Anne Kreitman, Jessica Dickey’s seventy-minute play takes off at breakneck speed, uncovering issues of nostalgia, bias, mansplaining, and our relationship to history.
The question of historical accuracy is one that we discuss frequently in the theater community. We are all asked to consider more factors than we used to as we navigate our deeply conditioned relationships, behaviors, and choices as theater-makers, and rightfully so. As we explore the value, power and purpose of making plays, we often have to weigh which is more important: historical accuracy or progress. When we suggest a retelling of the past to give voice to those who haven’t had the microphone, resentment often takes the form of “but that would never happen” or “a person of color/woman/genderqueer person wouldn’t have done X, Y or Z in 1880-whatever” to which I usually respond with a reference to the record-crushing “Hamilton.”
Exclusion for the sake of historical accuracy is still exclusion. We can engage with our history without perpetuating the narratives that we should be learning from. If we look back with too much reverence, if we reduce ourselves to distilled narratives captured in history books, we can’t move forward. In 2018, we have so much more available to us. More knowledge, more access, more perspective. If we dig into what is uncomfortable about those narratives through a contemporary lens, we can benefit from the lessons already learned and the wars already fought.
Once we wade through the question of progress versus dramaturgy, we can look at where all of this history has left us. What Dickey’s play does so brilliantly is explore how limiting these false prisons of bias are for everyone. Dickey asks, “Who do we belong to?”
At moments, this story feels like a vehicle for big conversation, with one hot-button issue segueing into the next. But each conversation is so vital, and so thoughtfully had, that I quickly stopped dramaturging and just started listening. This is an exceptional company of actors. As Leah, Mattos dives headfirst into the warranted rage of the perpetually silenced and it is powerful to watch. Eric Lindahl’s Tom is passionate and vulnerable, uncomfortable and exposed. What a joy it is to see a man dig into those things onstage. And through David Coupe’s Cal, we experience a reckoning. We feel the cost of these big, heavy conversations and how profoundly necessary they are.
There is something really special happening in the basement of the Apollo. I strongly encourage you to see it. (Erin Shea Brady)
The Comrades at the Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 North Lincoln, (773)935-6100, the-comrades.com, $15. Through February 27.