An Outrageously Fresh Look at the Civil War

January 30, 2014
In residence at the College, the talented performers in Bearded Ladies will bring their cabaret talents into the classroom and onto the stage with their brilliant musical mashup of history and identity, “Wide Awake: A Civil War Cabaret.”

CHESTERTOWN, MD—The Bearded Ladies are coming, and Chestertown may 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. 

“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.”

Kicking off their week in Chestertown, the Bearded Ladies will host a playmaking workshop on Saturday and Sunday, January 25 and 26, that is open to all students and members of the public. The workshop hours will be Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m. To sign up for the workshop, or for more information, email Drama Department chair Michele Volansky at

As part of the residency, the troupe members also will teach classes in the drama, history, English literature and music departments. And on Wednesday, January 29, from 3 to 4 p.m., they will stage a parade (complete with band) through the campus.  

“The Beards represent everything that is the liberal arts:  an inquisitive, creative nature coupled with a keen awareness of the world around them,” says 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” will be performed on Thursday, January 30; Friday, January 31; and Saturday, February 1 at Decker Theatre in the Gibson Center for the Arts. All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public. Reservations are suggested. For reservations call 410-778-7835 or email .

The Bearded Ladies Cabaret residency is sponsored by the Starr Center and the Washington College Department of Drama.


Photos from top: John Jarboe plays an oversized Dixie in “Wide Awake,” James Ijames plays Lincoln, and four historical ghost hunters (Liz Filios, James Ijames, Kristen Bailey, and Mary Tuomanen) sing Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Photos by plate3photography.


Last modified on Jan. 28th, 2014 at 5:10pm by .