About halfway through Liberty University’s production of “The Civil War,” a group of students playing slaves take the stage for “Someday,” a song about how, one day, they’ll all be free.
“You gotta dream the dream/That God is colorblind,” they sing. “You gotta keep the faith/And finally mankind/Is gonna be what it should be.”
“They’re looking toward the future,” says junior Caleb Hughes, who plays a Union soldier in the production, which opens this weekend.
“We are the spirit of (their) someday. This is what they were looking forward to, and we’re still not perfect. We still have a ways to go.”
“The Civil War,” which ran on Broadway for two months back in 1999, is what the college is billing as a “dramatic theatrical concert.”
The cast of 40 goes from song to song, performing from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers, slaves, women back home and nurses on the battlefield.
“It tries to cover the landscape of the whole war,” says director Chris Nelson, who has been a theater professor at Liberty for three years. “The journey we took as a nation. The journey we took as people.
“It’s kind of hard to do that in a play. The songs really operate as that dialogue.”
Nelson and the students are using a bare-bones set, with the eight-member orchestra front and center, to tell that story.
The actors sing and dance around them, while images — everything from pictures of people like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to “Volunteers Wanted” signs to Uncle Sam himself, pointing out into the audience — are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.
Between songs, there are a few monologues, drawing on the words of Lincoln or Douglass, but most of the story is told through music.
“When I first heard it, I was completely moved,” says sophomore Taamu Wuya, who plays a slave. “There’s music for the slaves. There’s music for the soldiers. And then there are songs where we all come together. It just captivates what the Civil War was about, and the result.”
There’s a song performed by two brothers, one fighting for the North, one for the South, and one sung by a young wife, writing a letter to tell her husband how much she misses him.
Another, “Freedom Song,” is sung by a group of slaves, with lyrics about how their lives feel more “like dying than living/How can God let this be?”
“The slaves suffered so much,” Wuya says. “Sometimes we take that for granted. I’m very blessed to go to school, to have an education.
“(We’re) trying to convey the message of freedom today. There is so much meaning to the word itself, for everybody.”
The production combines historical facts with some contemporary elements, including the music, which covers all genres (think everything from R&B and gospel to country and pop).
The costumes, which were put together by cast members, also are contemporary.
“You get a lot of remnants of blue and gray,” Nelson says. “The actors were asked to wear pieces that they thought their character would wear.”
Hughes, who is playing a Union captain, chose a faded blue button-down shirt with jeans, unlaced combat boots and a shaggy beard. Other actors sport blazers, tunic tops and other items that could have come straight out of their own closets.
“It wasn’t as much character work as usual,” Hughes says. “It’s a lot more, ‘How do I relate to these events? How do I relate to these people? And how do I let that go through me?’
“This isn’t about taking the audience back (in time). This is bringing the Civil War to now.”
Nelson says the show not only asks a lot of its actors, but also of its audiences.
“It’s not forcing anything on them, but (urging) them to allow what happened in the past to have some relevance today.
“Because of that fight, we are not the same. The spirit of the people still has something really important to say to us.”