The murmur of voices echoes softly off the marble walls as people gather in the East Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art. Despite the tangles of plants that erupt from every corner of the room and the gurgling fountain in the middle, the audience has instead fixed its eyes on the entrance to Gallery 65 that functions as a stage. As the gray light filters in from the glass ceiling, music begins and the actors enter. Mary Hall Surface’s play, “Forward 54th,” had commenced.
“Forward 54th” was inspired by “Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial,” a display in the National Gallery honoring the soldiers of the 54th Regiment 150 years after the Battle of Fort Wagner. The “Tell It with Pride” display includes the enormous bronze plaster “Shaw Memorial” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens as well as photographs, letters and historical artifacts, such as Shaw’s sword. The National Gallery of Art commissioned Mary Hall Surface to write a show based on the display, and she wrote and directed “Forward 54th.”
“[“Forward 54th”] is particularly exciting for me because it combines my love of history, visual art and site-specific theater,” Surface said.
The show itself is extremely powerful, relying on just four actors and one musician to tell the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African American regiments to fight for the Union during the Civil War. The play centers on Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (David Mavricos), a white northerner whom the Massachusetts governor asked to lead the 54th. However, it also touches on the stories of important members of the 54th, such as Alex Johnson (Stanley A. Jackson III), Sergeant William Carney (Jamar Brown) and Susie King Taylor (Mary Miller). The cast is extremely talented and brought the show to life in its own way. Mavricos’ performance as Colonel Shaw was especially important, as his pensive internal monologues humanized the conflicts of war. Brown’s stoic, serious depiction of Sergeant Carney demonstrated the seriousness of the play and the history without allowing the heaviness of the topic to overwhelm his character. Miller’s sass and can-do attitude as Taylor foreshadows the future fight for women’s rights, while her portrayal of Taylor’s own difficulties keeps the audience focused on the civil rights struggle at hand. Yet Jackson’s energy and naive enthusiasm as 16-year-old Johnson made him the pivotal cast member. From the second he strode onto stage, alternating between speaking and vocally imitating a drumbeat, he captured the audience’s full attention.
As brilliant as the acting was however, the show would not have been complete without period music played by Ginger Hildebrand. Hildebrand, a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, played four instruments throughout the show, seamlessly switching between them for each scene. The actors told the story, but Hildebrand transported the audience to the era.
Surface wrote “Forward 54th” to appeal to children, but the room held both old and young faces. The cast said children often talk to them after the show, but that some adults had come up to them crying, saying how much the show affected them. The important thing, the cast agreed, was to bring history to life.
“[The purpose of this show is] to educate people on things they don’t know. The information stays with you better than if you read it in a book,” Jackson said.
“It’s a lot of information to take in. [The play] is a great way to learn,” Miller said.
The play could stand by itself, but it becomes even more powerful when coupled with the “Tell It with Pride” exhibition. Mavricos explained that some of the best reactions to the show were kids being able to reference swords and what they see in the exhibits, and Brown emphasized the importance of theater in education and how the exhibit’s location was a great draw for the show.
“Being in D.C., this is where people come from all over the world,” Brown said.
From the actors’ voices booming throughout the East Garden Court to the soft strains of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, this 30-minute show will stick with you. “Forward 54th” affords students the opportunity to get off campus and experience more of what D.C. has to offer.
“[There is an] emphasis at Georgetown on theater that’s about contemporary global issues, but it’s also important to look at history. We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been,” said Surface.
There will be three more performances on Dec. 7, Feb. 2, and Feb. 23. The “Tell It with Pride” exhibit will be at the National Gallery until Jan. 10, but the Shaw Memorial itself is on extended loan to the National Gallery.