‘Republic Undone’ premieres at Castleton
The RAAC-supported, Flint-Hill-based Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation is the brainchild of John Henry. His thought-provoking productions, performed primarily by Rappahannock “citizen-actors,” usually take their inspiration from history, with useful lessons for today. About Henry’s latest play — “Republic Undone,” whose setting is exactly a century ago — he here answers questions for the Rappahannock News.
Why do you choose Woodrow Wilson, our 28th President, as the centerpiece of your newest play?
Wilson has one of history’s most paradoxical and misunderstood personalities. Five remarkable women feature in his meteoric rise and fall. They are, by and large, shortchanged in biographies and memoirs. His rise was piloted by his first wife, Ellen Axson, who surrendered her promising career as a painter. She is the protagonist who remedies his alarming lack of wisdom and character.
Why did Wilson fight the suffragettes?
The suffragette movement threatened his Southern base which anchored the Democratic Party. Alice Paul, who is played by your charming wife, is the locomotive of the 19th Amendment. In opposing her, he provided a dress rehearsal for the enhanced interrogation techniques that earmarked Guantanamo Bay.
Why are Princeton students calling for the removal of Wilson’s name from the School of Public & International Affairs?
Wilson endorsed the white supremacy of his era. He excluded blacks at Princeton. He campaigned as a second Lincoln to attract black support, but governed with the racism of South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman to placate southern bigots. He re-segregated the federal workforce, fired black officials in the South, and turned a deaf ear to lynchings. In Republic Undone, William Monroe Trotter, Harvard’s first black Phi Beta Kappa, confronts Wilson in the White House. Wilson permanently evicts Trotter from the White House.
Did Wilson’s academic background make him protective of free speech and civil liberties?
The paradoxical answer is no. He has the worst track record. His Espionage and Sedition Acts criminalized dissent. Thousands of peaceful citizens went to jail for opposing World War I. Wilson propagandized the county with fake news through the Committee on Public Information. He insinuated naturalized citizens had “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life” and therefore needed to “be crushed”.
Why is Wilson ranked among our best Presidents?
Predominantly because of his Progressive domestic legislation. Paradoxically, Wilson winning the war didn’t help his popularity. He made the 1918 midterm election a test of his leadership and lost control of the Senate and the House. The 1920 presidential election was the greatest electoral repudiation of the White House incumbent party up to that time.
Having served as his Assistant Secretary of Navy, FDR was more Wilson than Wilson. He refurbished Wilson’s reputation to promote his own.
What is the most important Wilsonian legacy?
With his co-belligerency with the Allied Powers, he pioneered presidential wars which have become the norm since the Korean War. Today we have nine presidential wars in the Middle East and South Asia operating outside the Constitution.
I only count seven. Afghanistan. Iraq. Pakistan. Somalia. Yemen. Libya. Syria.
Don’t forget al Qaeda and ISIS. There are scores more against alleged enemies that the President classifies and conceals from Congress and the American people. The President now exercises more unchecked power over American citizens than King George III did over American colonists which provoked the American Revolution. Indeed, we’ve concentrated more power in the hands of one individual than any government in history. The Wilsonian legacy has squandered the heroic sacrifices at Lexington and Concord.
Is that the lesson of your play?
My motivation is to cast light on Wilson’s displacement of separation of powers and checks and balances with limitless executive power. If we transfer the war power from Congress to the President, we are doomed to perpetual wars that undo our Republic.
Your Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation provides many unique and creative opportunities for Rappahannock residents. What specific roles do they have in upcoming production?
In Republic Undone, Wilson is played by Hugh Hill who was also the lead male role as Moses in Arguing with God and Alexander Hamilton in Republic For Which We Stand. Peter Stenner, who also acted in my first two plays, returns as Doctor Cary Grayson and Joseph Tumulty. Another veteran thespian, Maeve Cuiba, returns as young Tommy Wilson. Bill Walton, who played George Washington in Republic For Which We Stand, returns as French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. John Lesinski makes a third theatrical appearance, this time as Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. Deverell Pedersen returns for the third time as Wilson’s mother. Our third-timer, star singer-actress, Pat Nicklin, plays first cousin Hatti Woodrow and suffragette leader Alice Paul. Assistant Director, Howard Coon, who featured in Republic For Which We Stand, plays Wilson’s father. Sandy Reade plays Augusta Victoria, the Kaiser’s wife, and John Schmitz plays the Kaiser.
Appreciation is given to Father Tuck Grinnell who hosted a reading at St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
When is the premier performance?
Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite Castleton Theater Saturday evening, May 19th. Republic Undone will also be performed at DC’s Keegan Theater on Tuesday, May 22nd. I hope it becomes a topic of conversation throughout the county.