WTZOn October 29, 1862, Rufus Vann and the other members of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers regiment made history at the Action of Island
Mound as the first African Americans to fight as Union soldiers during the
Vann, who became a corporal in the Union Army after enlisting at age 46, is the focal point of “Resurrection 150,” a short play presented at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park as part of the museum’s “The Civil War in Missouri” exhibition.
The play commemorates the 150th anniversary of a skirmish between the First Kansas regiment and Confederate troops that occurred on the Toothman Farm in western Missouri near the Kansas border. It is written by Linda Kennedy, artistic associate of The Black Rep, and directed by Elizabeth A. Pickard, the museum’s assistant director of interpretive programs.
“We asked Linda to write the play to highlight the African American experience of the Civil War in Missouri as part of our programming for the exhibit,” Pickard said. “The aim of all our Theatre in the Museum programs is to help make the past more accessible through storytelling, personal experience and emotional connections to content.”
The play illustrates the African American experience during the War Between the States through stories, poetry and songs of the Colored Regiment. For instance, African American soldiers made up their own lyrics and sung them to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” tune.
“I have a couple (of examples),” Kennedy said, “From the show we are doing. ‘We are done with hoeing cotton, we are done with hoeing corn, we are colored Yankee soldiers now, as sure as you are born. Just hear us yelling, they’ll think it’s Gabriel’s horn, as we go marching on.’ And then another one says, ‘They have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin, they will have to bow their foreheads, to the colored kith and kin. They will have to give us house room, or the roof shall tumble in, as we go marching on.’”
When the idea for “Resurrection 150” was first conceived, Pickard and Kennedy agreed it should be more than just entertainment.
“Ron Himes, our founder and producing director, does some main stage shows (at the history museum) and works with groups there, but we wanted to something with an education component,” Kennedy said. “We knew that the 150th commemoration was coming, and we thought, ‘How can we be a part of that?’”
During a trip to Texas, Kennedy picked up a book about colored regiments during the Civil War.
“When Elizabeth and I started talking, and I started looking up information on where the first battles were, how Missouri was involved, and more specifically, where those battles were in Missouri, Rufus Vann’s name kept popping up,” Kennedy said. “So I wanted him to embody many of those soldiers, but basically his name and his story.”
The one-person performance is told from the perspective of Vann, portrayed this Saturday by Maurice Demus, an acting intern with The Black Rep.
“He sort of narrates it,” Kennedy said. “He becomes Rufus. Rufus tells about meeting one of the first Native American soldiers, John Sixkiller, and what the battles looked like from their point-of-view.”
It also shows African Americans taking an active role in the war.
”For this play in particular, it was essential to me that we portrayed African Americans fighting for their own freedom,” Pickard said. “Rufus Vann was a man who took his life in his hands to escape slavery and join the Union. His commander was defying orders to arm him because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
Over the course of the three months this play has been performed, actors Curtis Lewis and Romiyus Gause alternated with Demus in the role of Vann. Kennedy attended three performances and said the play was well received by audience members.
“They were very, very positive,” she said. “People understood it and wanted to find out more.”
The play also clarifies a widely held misperception about African American soldiers in the Civil War.
“I also love that the play highlights a great moment in the state's history,” Pickard said. “Very few, if any, visitors realize that the first time African Americans fought in the front lines of a Civil War battle was right here in our own state. Most folks think that honor belongs to the 54th Massachusetts – of Glory fame – much later in the war.”
The play has proven to be an eye-opening experience for people.
“When we look at history as we grow as a country, we’re uncovering more and more and becoming, honestly, more diverse in telling those stories,” Kennedy said. “Less hero worshipping, and more representative of who helped develop the country.”
A play like this can make the past come alive and help people better understand how the present fits into the historical timeline.
“My belief is that the power of live theater makes the past more real — bringing home to audiences that distant historical figures once lived, breathed, loved and died,” Pickard said. “That they were real people not so very different from us today. It makes clear that consequences of our choices in the past – whether it be slavery, suffrage, to go to war or to negotiate – changed the lives of real people and invites us to put ourselves in their shoes.”
“Resurrection 150” is free and is presented at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 31, in MacDermott Grand Hall at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBaliviere, Forest Park, St. Louis.
For more information, call 314-746-4599.