An Outrageously Fresh Look at the Civil War
CHESTERTOWN, MD—The Bearded Ladies have come and gone, and Chestertown will never be the same.
“We don’t just tour, we invade,” crows John Jarboe, founder of the rollicking Philadelphia theater company, which is doing a weeklong residency at Washington College—workshops, classes, a parade!—culminating in three free performances of their hit show, “Wide Awake: A Civil War Cabaret.”
The Caba-Play, as the Bearded Ladies call their fast-paced 60- to 80-minute productions, was inspired by the bestselling book 1861: The Civil War Awakening by historian Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
“Many strange and wonderful things can happen when you send a book out into the world,” says Goodheart. “But perhaps best of all was getting an email one day from out of the blue to inform me that 1861 had inspired a Civil War drag cabaret. I didn’t know quite what to expect when I saw it for the first time, but it turned out to be the funniest and smartest—and raunchiest—historical extravaganza I’ve ever seen. I went back to the dressing room right after the show and said, ‘This needs to come to Chestertown.’”
“Wide Awake” was first performed in a sold-out run at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater in November 2011, and the company received grants from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Knight Foundation to expand the production for a run at the Kimmel Center in the spring of 2013 as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
Goodheart served as historical adviser and helped workshop the play. The title is taken from his book’s first chapter. The Wide Awakes were a Civil War-era paramilitary organization whose members wore shiny black hats and capes, carried enormous torches and sometimes brandished the axes which they bore strapped to their backs in honor of their hero, Lincoln the rail splitter. Jarboe describes the play as “part Gone with the Wind, part folk-punk extravaganza, with music ranging from 1827 to 2013. John Brown, P.T. Barnum and a myriad of historical characters sing, dance and rock out in an epic battle-of-the-bands.”
During their week in Chestertown, the Bearded Ladies taught classes in the drama, history, English literature and music departments. On Wednesday, January 29, from 3 to 4 p.m., they staged a parade (complete with band) through the campus. And they hosted a playmaking workshop on Saturday and Sunday, February 1 and 2, open to all students and the public.
“The Beards represent everything that is the liberal arts: an inquisitive, creative nature coupled with a keen awareness of the world around them,” says Drama Professor Michele Volansky. “Their Civil War Cabaret is a perfect blend of arts and history. This will be my first time working with the company as a whole. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“Wide Awake: A Civil War Cabaret” was performed to sold-out audiences on Thursday, January 30; Friday, January 31; and Saturday, February 1 at Decker Theatre in the Gibson Center for the Arts.
The Bearded Ladies Cabaret residency was sponsored by the Starr Center and the Washington College Department of Drama.
Photo at top: John Jarboe plays an oversized Dixie in Wide Awake. Photo by plate3photography.