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By Molly Cox

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War is the most patriotic thing you will see this year – maybe ever. There are American flags galore, war, and rousing songs about heterosexual love, God, and freedom. Next month will be the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and this musical is a colorful tribute to our 16th president. It’s an intensely hopeful and stirring production.

The music alternates between gospel, country, and pop, with lengthy ballads that border on corny. There is a loose narrative that follows Lincoln, several soldiers, and their ever-patient wives through the war. The play is comprised mostly of vignettes about what people in the North and South endured, with songs inspired by Civil War era letters. The only spoken words in the play are direct quotes from Lincoln himself, which enables the audience to empathize with him. The use of video projection is also exceptional; the graphics and Civil War photos add historical weight to the production.

Kevin McAllister plays a fugitive slave who becomes a Union soldier, and stands out in a group of incredibly talented singers. His deep, powerful voice conveys more feeling and emotion than the words in the songs. McAllister performs the heart wrenching song “If Prayin’ Were Horses,” alongside Ashley D. Buster, who plays his wife who must stay behind while he sets out to fight for their freedom. I honestly get choked up remembering it.

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Cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, directed by Jeff Calhoun. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The fact that Freedom’s Song lacks any real villains is both a positive and a negative. Several times it’s suggested that the war is essentially God’s doing, so those fighting the war are merely actors on God’s stage. The slaves, Confederate soldiers, and Union soldiers are all nice people, just trying to get home to the people they love, with little discussion of why they are actually fighting each other. It would have been refreshing to see those who perpetrated and prolonged the evil of slavery held accountable in this performance, but of course in war there are always innocents on both sides. One aspect of the Civil War that the play did capture was the pain and inner conflict that Lincoln felt about the long, bloody war, and that brothers were often pitted against brothers in the fight. The forceful song “How Many Devils?” performed by soldiers from both armies drove this point home.

The production took on a fresh view of the Civil War when the Confederate Capitan surrenders to the fugitive slave character, though the moment is cut short by a gunshot representing the assassination of Lincoln. This moment is followed by an odd lullaby to the now deceased Lincoln, sung to his iconic stovepipe hat.

The final song, “Glory” (led by Nova Y. Payton), brings the audience to its feet and ends the show on a high, hopeful note. Although Freedom’s Song doesn’t contain anything about the Civil War or Lincoln that you can’t find in an elementary school textbook, seeing a play about the legendary president in the very theater where he died is a powerful experience. I highly recommend seeing this piece if you love musical theater, America (!), or history.

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War runs through May 20 at Ford’s Theater.

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