Civil War history to be retold in new tale

Photo by Shawna Fitzpatrick/The Collegian
NW students Ahmad Levertis, Ashleigh Sommer and Lane Norris read from scripts during a rehearsal of the stage reading of “Terrible Swift Sword” on NW campus. Photo by Shawna Fitzpatrick/The Collegian

By Juan Ibarra/campus editor

A NW professor hopes to give a new voice to a familiar subject, the Civil War.

“Terrible Swift Sword” is a new play, written by drama associate professor Josh Blann, about John Brown, an American abolitionist whose actions set in motion what would become the Civil War.

The play will have a staged reading 7:30 p.m. April 18 and 19 as well as 2 p.m. April 20. NW government assistant professor Aubrey Calvin will be leading a talkback session at the end of every performance.

“I have been wanting to write this particular play for 20 years,” Blann said. “I came across a book when I was you guys’ age in college called ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’ by James W. Loewen, and the book is basically about how American history is taught with some inaccuracies in the middle school and high school levels.”

The book had the story of Brown and mentioned that he is shown to be a wild, religious abolitionist who had an idea to start a violent uprising with slaves, but his plan was doomed and is merely glossed over in schools. The real story is more complicated and while Brown was a religious man, he also had a different strategy for trying to end slavery, Blann said.

“His raid on Harpers Ferry was southerners’ worst nightmare,” Blann said. “Which is that Northerners would come down to the South and incite their slaves to rebellion. There is nothing they feared more.”

Blann had the opportunity to create this play while he was on sabbatical thanks to the TCC Faculty Development Leave Program. The program allows for faculty members to submit a proposal to go on sabbatical, and this allowed Blann to focus on this specific project during that time.

“When you do something that involves history, especially American history that people have access to, that is a very time-consuming thing to do,” Blann said. “I knew I would never have the time to do it until this opportunity came by.”

“Terrible Swift Sword” is still in the creation process, according to the cast, from roles not being finalized to some small screenplay changes and refinements yet to be made.

“Stephen Douglas is a slaveholder,” said NW student Erik Warbrouck, who is set to play Douglas. “He is racist, although he is a moderate, especially in comparison to some of the more radical Southern democrats.”

Although some actors’ characters are subject to change, NW student Tavin Bothel’s character is mostly set in stone.

Due to being set in a time within history and using real historical figures versus fictional characters, the actors are given room to add character to their performance, however they still need to be kept in reality.

“These are real people, but there is no recordings of voice or demeanors we can really go off of,” said Bothel, who is set to play William Lloyd Garrison. “I mean, we can get secondhand accounts, but for the most part, you kind of just pull everything from text like you would any normal character.”

The care and attention to detail from each actor shows through effort, as the showings set for later in April are going to be staged readings and not full-blown performances with costumes and set pieces.

“Since we’re acting just from voice, this allows me to find out what I can really do with my voice,” NW student Frank Yandall said.

While the play is a staged reading in its current form, Blann hopes to keep refining the screenplay.

Different iterations of the project keep being created with every change and Blann hopes to one day see the screenplay be used for a play performance.

“Right now, I am trying to figure out what is the most effective way to tell this story,” Blann said. “When I learn what that is, then we can move down the road to a full performance.”

Terrible Swift Sword
7:30 p.m. April 18, 19
2 p.m. April 20
Theatre Northwest

Tickets are free for TCC students, faculty and staff;

$3 for non-TCC students and senior citizens; and $6 for general admission.