It was 2014 — and in retrospect, an altogether different period in U.S. history — when this city’s Alliance Theater first staged its adaptation of “Native Guard,” Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection that conjures little-known scenes from the black Civil War experience and challenges the way the broader story of the war has been told and memorialized.
The nation’s first black president was still in office. “Charlottesville” was not yet shorthand for a hate rally. And grand statues of Confederate heroes stood, as they had for decades, in the hearts of Southern cities like New Orleans and Memphis.
Today, some of those statues have been taken down, while the fate of many similar monuments remains a searing topic of debate. And the Alliance, one of Atlanta’s premier theater companies, has resurrected its adaptation of “Native Guard,” this time not in a traditional playhouse, but at the Atlanta History Center, where it is being deliberately — and provocatively — staged just steps from the museum’s Civil War exhibition.
The idea sprang in part from necessity. With the Alliance’s home base at the Woodruff Arts Center under renovation, the company decided to take its 49th season on the road, performing in locations around metro Atlanta. But the revival of “Native Guard” is also a deliberate effort by the theater to elbow its way into the roiling debate about race and historical memory that was sparked after a racist neo-Confederate sympathizer, Dylann Roof, massacred nine African-Americans in June 2015 at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“It felt like we were the ones broaching the subject in 2014,” said January LaVoy, the New York-based actor who once again plays the character based on Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate from 2012-14. “Now, in 2018, these conversations are being had all the time, in all sorts of ways — and very impolitely.”
A new conversation
Audiences at the play, which runs through Feb. 4, are being encouraged to stay after the performance to take part in what is billed as an Act II, a moderated audience conversation about the work, race and history.
At intermission, they are invited to walk through the history center’s Civil War exhibition and admire its extensive collection of rifles and ordnance, with words from Trethewey’s imagined monologue by a black Union soldier still fresh in their ears: “Some names shall deck the page of history/as it is written on stone. Some will not.”
The wrongs Trethewey describes have not been easily righted. As calls for the removal of Confederate symbols have mounted, particularly around the South, the backlash from neo-Confederates and other whites concerned that their own history is being erased has been occasionally ugly, and even deadly. Though many see the public memorials to the breakaway Southern states as little more than celebrations of white supremacy, President Donald Trump has lamented the removal of “our beautiful” Confederate statues.
At the same time, amid the shoving, shouting and violence, a more measured conversation is being had about the recalibration of U.S. history and the rethinking of historical symbols, one in which the art world has played a central role.
Artists, art historians and preservationists have weighed in on what to do with the decommissioned Confederate statues, and on questions of their artistic merit. In Baltimore, a statue of a pregnant black woman with a raised fist, created by artist Pablo Machioli, briefly occupied a space where the city’s Lee-Jackson memorial had stood before its removal in August. Good-natured petitions calling for alternative monuments to African-American hip-hop artists OutKast and Missy Elliott have appeared in their respective hometowns of Atlanta and Portsmouth, Virginia.
This is the context in which the Alliance seeks to interject its revival of “Native Guard.” Trethewey’s celebrated 2006 book is itself a kind of literary monument to her experience growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi as a biracial child, to her African-American mother, and to the Louisiana Native Guards, the black Union soldiers who fought on the Mississippi coast and guarded a prison camp for captured Confederates at Ship Island, south of Biloxi.
“The book is trying, in many ways, to talk about those things that have been forgotten or erased or somehow left out of the historical record, and I’m very concerned with trying to inscribe, or reinscribe, those things,” Trethewey, an English professor at Northwestern University, said in a recent phone interview.
The Alliance’s artistic director, Susan V. Booth, approached the Atlanta History Center with the idea of staging the play alongside its collection of Civil War artifacts. It was enthusiastically embraced by F. Sheffield Hale, the center’s president and chief executive. “I said, ‘Hell yeah,” recalled Hale, who said he was already a fan of the book. “It fits into our new strategic plan of working with other institutions and getting different people from different ZIP codes and different interests in here,” he said.
Hale is not a historian but a history buff, an Atlanta native with a law degree from the University of Virginia. Since taking the helm of the museum in 2012, he has helped raise $65 million for the center, bringing glossy upgrades to its main campus in the affluent Buckhead neighborhood, but also a fresh emphasis on diversity and historical nuance.
“The Battle of Atlanta,” the cyclorama painting once housed near the Atlanta Zoo, has been moved to the history center and placed in a custom-built cylindrical gallery that will open to the public in November. The massive work, originally painted to celebrate Northern victory but later associated with the Lost Cause myth — the romanticized and often whitewashed version of the Confederate story — will be accompanied by materials that will, as Hale has said, “demonstrate the power of the use and misuse of historical memory.”
Booth, director of “Native Guard,” said that only small things will change from the earlier productions of the play. LaVoy and Neal A. Ghant, another actor returning from the original cast, deliver the full text of the book without a single deletion or alteration. “The beauty of the piece is its constructed elegance,” Booth said. “I didn’t want to change a word.”
A gallery space has been transformed into a theater, with LaVoy and Ghant performing on a simple set that evokes a Ship Island beach, with a huge burlap backdrop. A number of Trethewey’s poems take up photographs as their subject, and in many cases the photos she refers to in “Native Guard” are projected onto the burlap. The epigraphs Trethewey sprinkles throughout the book are set to music; at one point, a vocalist, Nicole Banks Long, breaks into a fiery rendition of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
Producers offered free wine to entice the audience at the first preview to stay for Act II. Members of the racially mixed crowd seemed eager enough to weigh in on what they had seen, and talk about how distortions and elisions of U.S. history have affected their present. One woman, who said she had moved from South Africa, lamented that the United States had never engaged in a formal reckoning with its past, the way her homeland did after the fall of apartheid. “The lack of a formal reconciliation process here in the United States,” she said, is “still baffling to me.”
Toward the end of the show, LaVoy recites “Incident,” a quiet and haunting poem about a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. When she performed it in 2014, LaVoy said, “It felt like I was telling stories as a warning, or you know, ‘Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it: Here let me help you, let me teach you.’
“But then, after Charlottesville, I went back to the book, and I thought, ‘My God: It wasn’t past. It was prologue.’”