The American Revolution’s depiction on stage has really captured a lot of people’s imaginations. Though Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which tells the story from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton, has been making headlines with productions in New York, London, Puerto Rico and a national tour at Charlotte’s Blumenthal and Durham’s Performing Arts Center, it is far from the first Revolution-themed theatre piece to excite the American public. Rogers and Hart wrote Dearest Enemy in the 1920s, to dramatize the events around General Howe and General Washington’s battle in New York.
Perhaps it is Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ musical “1776” that best depicts central events to the American mythos: the writing of Declaration of Independence. Over the course of a few hours the audience meets the 55 fathers of our nation who, together, took a step that changed the course of history—and they risked their own lives to do it.
(Though I love the show, personally, I wish North Carolina got a little more credit in it for the Halifax Resolves, which instructed our delegates to vote for independence from Great Britain. C’est la vie.)
In a twist of life and art mirroring each other at a moment of great appropriateness, a production of 1776 presented in Wilmington’s City Council Chambers will open just before the upcoming election, Tuesday, Nov. 6. Directed by Ray Kennedy, it is joint effort of Positive Impact, Opera House Theater Company and Foundation Forward, Inc. Foundation Forward, Inc. is based in Valdese, North Carolina, and seeks to bring interactive experience with the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to people in every county in North Carolina. They’re called “The Charters of Freedom Installations”—“15 installations to date and seven more in the works,” notes Kennedy.
“Vance Patterson, the founder, has a great passion for civic education.”
Kennedy has directed “1776” for Opera House several times. The production utilizes some of the performers from previous shows, but, as Kennedy notes, there are plenty of new faces, including the lady playing Abigail Adams, Susan Powell—Miss America 1981, a television host and NYC Opera alum. NYC performer Brandon Riddle will take on Richard Henry Lee. Wilmington audiences will be excited to see Tracy Byrd, fresh from his recent national tour of “Motown the Musical,” return to the stage as Dr. Josiah Bartlett. Martha Jefferson will be played by Wilmington native Sydney Martin Jones, who is returning from NYC, while well-known Wilmington theatre alum Jason Hatfield as John Dickinson is driving in for rehearsals from Durham. “JR Rodriguez will reprise his role of John Adams, and Tony Rivenbark will reprise his wonderful take on Ben Franklin,” according to Kennedy—“so quite the stellar cast.”
Though Kennedy has directed “1776” before, he is excited about the immersive aspect of this particular run. Most shows take the historic Thalian Hall main stage by storm; this time it’s going up in the adjoining council chambers, as the New Hanover County government shares space with the 1858 historic theater.
“The audience will actually be sitting at tables in the continental Congress with delegates!” Kennedy enthuses. “[It’s] an exciting idea for making theatre real and alive. My concept for the show has always been to make the signatures we have seen our whole life human.”
The show has incredible potential for making our country’s signers real people—and to humanize the impact on those who affected them, like Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. It is possibly the closest many of us will ever get to the feeling of being in that room in Philadelphia (sans the heat).
As for the timing of the show with the election, Kennedy observes, “We did not specifically plan to open just before the election, but it certainly makes sense and reminds people of their civic duty to go out and vote.”
Kennedy’s long association with the USO makes him no stranger to the association between art and duty. So the connection with Foundation Forward, Inc and the installations of the Charters For Freedom in cities all across North Carolina seems like a natural fit.
In addition to the production in Wilmington, this rendition of “1776” will travel to Charlotte, NC. “We will perform the show free for 700 middle school students on the morning of November 1 and then that night for the public with Vance Patterson [founder of Foundation Forward, Inc.] in attendance,” he tells. “We will also perform for students in Wilmington on October 26 in a free morning show and an installation is planned in Wilmington in the next six months,” Kennedy notes.
And it all started thanks to a group of disparate colonists on the other side of the ocean from Great Britain who decided to take on one of the greatest military powers of the day—and to reshape the known world. Their decisions and actions were not taken lightly. What “1776” does so well is to bring to life the uncertainties and struggles surrounding the delegates. The actions they took created the world we live in today. (Also by unintended consequences, it created the settlement of Australia, as Britain had to transport convicts—about 164,000 of them—there between 1788 and 1868 when they could no longer send them to America.)
When people say voting is a waste of time or they don’t know who to vote for, so they don’t, I can’t help but think of the monumental decisions the Continental Congress made and voted upon: whether or not to commit treason and declare independence as well as the rights of people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Somehow, by comparison, not making the effort to vote for representation in a freely elected democratic government seems wimpy, at best.
Seriously, if William Hooper, John Penn and Joseph Hewes, NC signers of the Declaration of Independence, had decided it was too tough a decision to make, or too taxing or too time-consuming, where would we be today? Democracy is a participation sport, not a spectator sport.
The musical “1776” dramatizes this truth beautifully. The immersive setting of Kennedy’s current iteration will make it more palpable than ever. But, please, do not sit in the audience and applaud the actions of these men, and then somehow just never find the time to vote. Or never make a concerted effort to learn who the candidates are or what their platforms advocate. People have fought, died, suffered imprisonment and struggled so we can exercise a cornerstone of freedom.
Anyone who needs a reminder of why it is important should see “1776” and meditate on the 55 men who signed their names to a death warrant if they didn’t prevail in their vision of a free world.