Closing out African American History Month and providing a respite for patients, families, staff and visitors at Walter Reed Bethesda, the medical center’s Stages of Healing sponsored a performance of Mary Hall Surface’s “Forward, 54th!” in the America Building atrium on Feb. 26.
Stages of Healing brings various artists, performances and presentations to Walter Reed Bethesda, “allowing walls to be broken down, facilitating dialogue, and contributing to an overall feeling of togetherness,” said U.S. Public Health Service Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Micah Sickel, coordinator for the events and a behavioral health psychiatrist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
Last week’s performance of “Forward, 54th!” gave those who attended insight into the heroics of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official African American units in the United States during the Civil War. Members of the regiment are honored in sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bas-relief that forms the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. The gallantry of the regiment also served as the basis of the 1989 film “Glory.”
Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, of which there is a plaster cast on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., served as an inspiration for author Mary Hall Surface in writing “Forward 54!” The NGA Division of Education presented the 30-minute performance, which features a musician and five actors interweaving monologues with Civil War-era music.
“Theatre can bring history to life in vivid, powerful ways, so I was delighted when the [NGA] asked me to create a play to complement the exhibit,” Surface explained. “As a playwright, I always want my plays to inspire people to ask questions, to ponder new ideas and to reach a deeper understanding of themselves and the world through the play.”
The play focuses on the experiences of the 54th’s 16-year-old drummer Alexander Johnson, as well as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who led the regiment; Sgt. William H. Carney, a Soldier with the 54th who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Fort Wagner, where he saved the American flag and planted it on the parapet despite being wounded; and Susie King Taylor, an African-American Union Army nurse, educator, laundress, occasional cook and scout for food supplies.
“I hope people who see ‘Forward, 54th!’ will not only know more about the history of this remarkable group of men and their supporters, but will understand more deeply the courage required to stand up to the enemy of prejudice,” Surface added. “I hope they will feel what it was like to change history; to sacrifice for something larger than themselves. I also hope they will be reminded, in this virtual world of YouTube and video games, that live theatre — real people in a real place and time — is the most powerful way of telling a story and connecting with one another.”
According to Sickel, the purpose of Stages of Healing is showing that everyone needs healing; and events are not just for patients. “Certainly, we do want to attract the wounded, ill and injured to our performances, but in order to serve those people better we need to take care of providers and family members. We’re all here for the same purpose, to heal, whether it is healing others or healing ourselves. As clinicians, we must heal ourselves in order to heal our patients.”
He also explained placing the performances in the hospital makes it a more welcoming environment. “From our surveys, the performances are met with overwhelmingly positive responses from our audiences. They tell us how it benefits them, whether it is an employee who says that it is one of the best perks of working here, or a parent saying that it helps to distract her children on the way to getting their shots. It has a positive effect on people’s lives and well-being,” Sickel said.
Barbara Grey, a visitor to WRNMMC, said she just happened to be in the America Building lobby during the play, and found the performance “entertaining and educational.”
“It speaks of honor, it speaks of perseverance and it speaks of unity,” Sickel added.
For more information about Stages of Healing at Walter Reed Bethesda, call Sickel at 301-295-2492.