Serendipity surfaces when one least expects it, usually in the most unexpected form.
For playwright James R. Harris, it was the discovery of the diary of his great-great-uncle, Joe Harris, who lived in eastern Alabama.
"The relevant years in the diary were 1860-65. The handwriting was very hard to read, but what was the particularly intriguing thing to me was the fact that my uncle had some doubts about the wisdom of the war and seemed not to have a great deal of vitriol toward the North. As such, he became an interesting central character, the anchor, so to speak, of my play."
That play is Barter Theatre's production of the musical "Civil War Voices," which comes to town for seven performances beginning Friday at Memminger Auditorium.
Part of the Sesquicentennial observance here, the musical runs through April 12.
"As I read the diary my uncle left behind, I could feel the warm breath of his life and times on every page," says Harris, an attorney. "It fundamentally changed the way I felt about the conflict. I began to hear music, the passionate and heartfelt music of the Civil War."
Harris weaves the true stories of five individuals of the era, their experiences given emotional resonance by the musical arrangements of Mark Hayes, who enlivens classic period compositions.
The playwright's dramatization, paired with Hayes' arrangements, was one of the highlights of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, held last year in New York.
Enter the Barter Theatre, also known as the State Theatre of Virginia. Ten actors play multiple characters in the musical, accompanied by a violinist and a pianist. The cast includes Eugene Wolf, Wendy Piper, Tricia Matthews, Rick McVey, Dan Folino, Nathan Whitmer, Chavez Ravine and Arthur Marks.
"Harris shines a light on these people of the Civil War as told through their diaries and letters," says Richard Rose, producing artistic director of the Abingdon, Va.-based Barter.
People living in the North and the South harbored the same fears, uncertainties, sacrifices and triumphs, says Harris.
"I have tried to capture the real people, the real songs and, ultimately, the real heart of a country divided. ... And rather than take the story from a Northern or Southern point of view, I chose to tell it from a human perspective. This show never loses sight of the fact that these were real people.
"A key breakthrough for us was when Mark agreed to be my collaborator." Such songs as "Amazing Grace," "Dixie," "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" are familiar, but the arrangements by Hayes are new.
Harris believes the other characters in the musical are no less compelling than his forebear's, not least that of Elizabeth Keckley.
"Hers was a story I found in a New York museum shop, the memoir of a lady born a slave, but who bought her freedom. She moved to Washington, D.C., and was hired as a seamstress by Mrs. Jefferson Davis. When Ms. Davis moved south with her husband at the outbreak of war, she was then hired, believe it or not, by Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, becoming her personal dressmaker.
"Each one in their own way is a remarkable individual. By focusing on their lives, you gain a better understanding of the war. Some artistic license was taken in what is an emotionally powerful piece, but the events depicted all happened."
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