Mary Hall Surface ’80 brings the Civil War to life with Forward, 54th!
Award-winning playwright Mary Hall Surface ’80 (second from left, above) is bringing to life one of the most significant moments in American history with Forward, 54th!, a performance piece designed to compliment the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) exhibit, Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial.
The NGA exhibit commemorates the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-African-American Union regiment mustered during the Civil War. The exhibit features a wealth of historical materials, including photographs, medals, letters and a full-sized plaster cast of the Shaw Memorial, a bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (right). The original Saint-Gaudens piece, often called the greatest American sculpture of the nineteenth century, stands at 24 Beacon Street at the edge of the Boston Commons and depicts the regiment’s commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, leading the 54th into battle. Tell It with Pride marks the 150th Anniversary of the regiment’s Battle of Fort Wagner, where nearly one-third of their force was killed or wounded.
Surface’s five-person, 30-minute play retells the story of that fateful battle through the eyes of the regiment’s 16-year-old drummer boy, Alexander Johnson, through the use of monologues and Civil War-era music. The Saint-Gaudens sculpture factors largely in the NGA exhibit, as well as in Mary Hall’s vision for Forward, 54th!
“For this production, our goal was to bring vividly to life the stories of the people of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment; to deepen the emotional connection to the subject of Augustus Saint-Gauden’s Shaw Memorial,” she says. “The commission came from the department of public programs, though the curators of the exhibit were somewhat skeptical. They had difficulty envisioning how, with four actors and a musician, we could evoke the time, place and events. Now they love the show and see how theatre can build a powerful bridge between visitors of all ages and the art and artifacts in the exhibit.”
Surface also shares some insight into how Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture influences the play.
“So much about the posture of the figures and the composition of the piece spoke to me,” she says. “Shaw [is] straight as a compass arrow on his horse, both visually distinct and yet at one with the men marching beside him; the soldiers leaning forward, overlapping, their destinies merging; the lines of their guns creating an intersecting jumble of the past behind them on the upper left juxtaposed to the clear open space of the future on the upper right; the angel above that conveys a higher purpose to the gritty scene below.
“I hope that my play captures the complexities of this historic moment and portrays characters as individual soldiers in the sculpture, marching on for all time to the rhythm of justice,” she adds.
Although the regiment’s young drummer isn’t a dominant character in the NGA exhibit, Mary Hall explains her reasons for telling the story through his eyes.
“[Johnson] is leading the way in the sculpture,” Mary Hall explains. “I often place a young person as the lens through which the audience experiences the events of my plays. I love how young people think, feel and wonder. Also, Alex is someone with whom the younger members of the audience can most easily connect. As for the adults in the audience, we were all young once, too, so his perspective is intergenerational.”
This isn’t the first time Mary Hall has used performance as a means of illuminating and enhancing visual arts.
“The Public Programs for Families Department of the National Gallery of Art has embraced theatre as a way to more deeply engage visitors with visual art. Forward, 54th! is the third play that I have written, produced and directed for the Gallery since 2007. The first two were commissioned to complement two special exhibitions; a retrospective of the work of Edward Hopper in 2007 and of Roy Lichtenstein in 2012. These were elaborate productions with projections, animations, sound and live music as well as actors designed to provide a new way of looking at the artwork itself.”
Mary Hall is an internationally known playwright and director specializing in work for family audiences and multi-disciplinary collaborations; her original productions are staged around the world. She has worked for Arena Stage, Folger Shakespeare Theatre and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She is the Artistic Director of INTERSECTIONS, an annual all-arts festival at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts.
In 2002, Surface won the prestigious Helen Hayes Award for outstanding director of a resident musical for Perseus Bayou, and along with collaborator David Maddox, was nominated for five Charles McArthur Awards for outstanding new play. The original soundtrack recording of Perseus Bayou also earned a coveted Silver Award from Parents’ Choice. She was Centre’s Young Alumni Award recipient in 1994.
By Cindy Long