Murdered by her second husband in 1985, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough lies under a “stone pillow” in a Mississippi cemetery not far from where a battalion of black Union soldiers, the so-called Louisiana Native Guard, held Confederate hostages during the Civil War.
Though the Native Guard was the Union’s first African-American presence, their service was virtually forgotten, paved over by monuments to white men.
Here, Trethewey etches an epitaph.
In her haunting cycle of poems, staged as a theatrical production by the Alliance Theatre at the Atlanta History Center, past and present bump up against each other like unmarked graves in a cemetery. Trethewey eloquently disinters these ghosts from their common ground, sifting through layers of time, space and memory space to reveal a starkly beautiful remembrance.
Directed by Susan V. Booth, “Native Guard,” first seen at the Alliance in 2014, has been resituated at the History Center while the Woodruff Arts Center’s resident theater is renovated. It’s a remarkably resonant twist of fate, hearing Trethewey’s bone-deep poems next to an exhibit of Civil War memorabilia, which audience members are invited to visit during intermission.
Every word of Trethewey’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning verse cycle is spoken here by her onstage doppelganger, The Poet (January LaVoy), and her visitor from the 19th century, The Native Guard (Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant). The show succeeds as both a piece of urgent post-Charlottesville political commentary, and a harrowing account of Trethewey’s personal history.
With echoes of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, she conjures images of train journeys, graveyards, daffodils, cotton fields, slaves, old photographs, death certificates, rotting fruit, refugees, floods and strange dreams.
Dead bodies pile up everywhere. So do ironies.
Consider: Trethewey was a child of miscegenation, a fully documented, pre-DACA “illegal,” if you will. “In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.” One Christmas, she was given “a blond wig, a pink sequined tutu, and a blond ballerina doll.”
In “Incident,” she recalls the night the KKK paid her family a visit: “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.”
Now consider the Native Guard’s tale: “O how history intersects,” he says. He was born a slave; now he’s a jailer “to those who still would have us slaves” — “rebel soldiers, would-be masters.” But will anyone remember him? “Some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone. Some will not.”
LaVoy gives a moving and beautifully calibrated performance. Ghant, too, though in a much smaller role.
Trethewey prefaces portions of her text with quotations from songs and literature. In a lovely stroke of staging, vocalist Nicole Banks Long introduces those passages: from Robert Herrick’s “faire daffadills, we weep to see you haste away so soone” (brief but exquisite and tender) to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” (scorching and anthemic). Musical director and composer Tyrone Jackson accompanies Long on keyboards.
While the words are miraculous and powerful in their own right, the designers amplify the text through a dynamic interlace of sets (Anne Patterson), lighting (Ken Yunker), sound (Clay Benning) and, in particular, video projections (by the virtuosic Adam Larsen).
The second act is an audience discussion led by community leaders, and while the value of the experience no doubt varies from night to night, you don’t want to miss the Civil War exhibit across the hallway.
In the context of this play, it’s a surreal and provocative experience — and, I should add, the best kind of community partnering. I suppose the only thing better might be a site-specific performance of Trethewey’s sobering, funereal poems in a Mississippi cemetery.
Through Feb. 4. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $25-$52. Alliance Theatre production at Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/nativeguard.
Bottom line: Theater illumines Trethewey’s remarkable poetry.