‘Our War’ Brings President Knapp, Student Playwrights to Arena Stage

Production features performance by Dr. Knapp and monologues written by seniors Nicholas Ong and Zinhle Essamuah.

Civil War
President Steven Knapp with the cast of "Our War." Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.
October 27, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

Composed of short vignettes, “Our War” acquaints its audience with a parade of characters: There’s the insouciant “Moo,” a fast-talking Indian immigrant prepared to trade military service for a shot at the American Dream; a Japanese-American who achingly recounts her grandmother’s brutal suffering in a detainment camp; a mother trying to assure her anxious husband that their son William will return from the battlefield.

No character is quite like the other, but such diversity hints at the immensity of war and illustrates the innumerable lives that American conflicts have affected throughout history.

The company of "Our War" performs the monologue "Questions for a Union Soldier" on Saturday. Photo by Teresa Wood.

“Our War” is a performance born out of the National Civil War Project, which has paired four universities with five arts institutions to create performances commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The George Washington University formed a partnership with Arena Stage and first created last June’s “Healing Wars,” a dance piece choreographed by MacArthur Genius Fellow Liz Lerman, M.A. ‘82. “Our War” is the second product of the collaboration, and it features two scenes written by GW students. It runs from Oct. 21 to Nov. 9.

The production relies on a minimal setting and small cast to bring each monologue to life. Because the show features 25 playwrights, it’s been split into two performances, titled “Stars” and “Stripes.” George Washington University President Steven Knapp and NPR international correspondent Deborah Amos made guest appearances at “Stripes” last Saturday. Notable Washingtonians including WAMU's Diane Rehm, Mayor Vincent Gray, B.S. '64, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., also provided guest readings during other performance nights. Dr. Knapp delivered “A Cause for Laughter” by Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig.

In the role of bombastic Senator Isaac Arnold, Dr. Knapp starts the monologue full of pomp and arrogance: “I was Republican congressman from the Great State of Illinois, specifically from the district of the city of Chicago,” he belted out. “I said Chicago—you may applaud for that.”

He then gleefully recalls his close-knit relationship with President Abraham Lincoln, taking great pride in describing how he came to know the president’s sense of humor firsthand. But that self-importance morphs into sentimentality as the senator continues, reliving details of the last time he saw the president alive.

The key to the scene was modulating the emotion, Dr. Knapp said, and making the turn from boisterous to poignant. Like “A Call for Laughter,” each scene in “Our War” is short in length but heavy in impact, often packing a punch powerful enough to leave the audience silent. While the show uses the Civil War as its cornerstone, it references several other conflicts throughout U.S. history.

“The performances really bore out the whole rationale for the Civil War Project, which is to look at the Civil War and its implications over multiple dimensions. The pieces wove together to create an amazing tapestry of the war from every possible perspective,” Dr. Knapp said.

Among the most emotionally searing snippets was GW senior Zinhle Essamuah’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” While reciting her nightly “Our Father” prayer, a preacher’s young daughter tries to make sense of a horrific act she witnessed her father committing on an African American slave. Ms. Essamuah’s decision to juxtapose the lines of the Christian prayer with details of violence brings the production to one of its highest points of intensity.

Sara Waisanen plays Annie in "The Lord's Prayer," written by GW senior Zinhle Essamuah. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Senior Nicholas Ong also penned a scene for “Our War,” after hearing about the show through Professor of Theatre Leslie Jacobson last spring. Originally, he’d created a piece that represented how war affects familial relationships and causes conflict on an individual level. Once Arena Stage chose him as one of the production’s playwrights, he reworked the monologue—going through at least 15 different drafts, he said. The final result is “Angels of the Battlefield,” a monologue between a young Civil War-era woman and her boyfriend, who supports a different side of the war than her father. The piece is included in the “Stars” performance. 

“I wanted to focus it on familial relationships and keep the theme I had originally started with,” he explained. 

Mr. Ong hopes to have a career in the theater and aspires to become a playwright or actor. He explained that GW’s collaboration with Arena Stage—and the university’s proximity to cultural and arts institutions in D.C.—helped him land his first professional theater experience. He added that GW’s role in the Civil War Project also gave him the opportunity to think broadly about themes of war and how the 150-year-old conflict continues to influence Americans in contemporary society.

“It’s a part of history that shaped the nation we are today,” he said. “A lot of people think after sixth or seventh grade history, you don’t need to learn about it anymore, but it’s something we definitely shouldn’t forget.”

The "Stripes" performance of "Our War" included the monologue "The Truth Revealed." Photo by Teresa Wood.

Dr. Knapp explained that the Civil War Project benefits from a capacious theme that lends itself to multiple interpretations from students, professors and local institutions. He said the university has the opportunity to model future arts collaborations from its partnership with Arena Stage, as well as from its burgeoning relationships with the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran.

“It’s great that George Washington is really breaking new ground and demonstrating ways a university can help strengthen important cultural institutions through partnerships that are mutually beneficial, and we're also helping to emphasize the arts and their central role in American culture,” Dr. Knapp said.