A New Nation can’t really be called a play. Billed as an unorthodox but perhaps more accurate perspective on the Civil War, the hour-long piece is a collection of seemingly randomly selected letters read aloud. Unfortunately, the show is thrown-together and amateurish.
The letters aren’t exactly revelatory, nor are they cohesive enough to make any outstanding point. The production’s four actors each stand in the spotlight one at a time to read a historical document ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation to a letter from a Union soldier. They then sit back down without pronounced emotion or movement. No speech builds on the last and there is no discernible plot. Most bewildering of all, every so often the actors sing.
But it feels unsportsmanlike to critique the play, like writing a scathing review of your high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Everyone involved enjoyed themselves, so what does it matter that Tevye’s beard kept falling off? The compiler and director of the play, Jessica Wright (a recent University of Chicago grad), shows a genuine love for the material, if not a trained director’s eye.
However, some minor details made the show difficult to take seriously. Jackson Challinor recited a Union soldier’s letter in a voice too low, fast, and slurred to be heard, and the fact that actors brought sheets of paper with them on stage made it appear that they didn’t know their lines. Abraham Lincoln himself, played by Varrick Douglas, Jr., was stately and captivating at moments—the Gettysburg Address is still a remarkable document and he handled the speech well.
The Prop Theater is a venue for experimental productions without big names or big money. Not every theater experiment works, but the opportunity to try new things is vital. Even so, don’t bother making the trek uptown for this one—you can recreate the experience of A New Nation with some friends, a fake beard, and the a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation printed off the Internet.