‘The Civil War’ a musical kickoff to Dover’s 300th birthday

DOVER — Tommye Staley, a theater buff, teacher and director of half a century, has spearheaded a project to bring the musical “The Civil War” to the stage in Dover this weekend and next.

Born to a history teacher, Ms. Staley learned about the Civil War at a young age and developed an interest that followed her into adulthood.

She has taught for 50 years and officially retired Thursday. She has taught 40 years at Milford High School and 16 at Wesley College.

Bringing the former Broadway show written by Gregory Boyd and Frank Wildhorn to the Schwartz Center of the Arts was an idea Ms. Staley conjured up on her own.

“I saw the mayor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast and he started talking to me about Dover celebrating its 300th birthday this year and I realized that this would be a great way to kick off the celebration,” she said.

“We used to do Civil War reenactments together, but it’s very time consuming so we stopped a couple years ago. But it’s great to be working on a musical about the Civil War.”

Although the show is about the Civil War, it focuses more on the people living during the war rather than the battles themselves.

“Not everyone fought, but it was something that tore families apart, pitted brother against brother,” Ms. Staley said. “There were so many people living in uncertainty and when people look at the Civil War in a historical light, they don’t always look to see how it impacted day to day life.”

It uses letters, diaries, historical documents and Walt Whitman’s poetry and tells the story in song from the perspective of Union soldiers, Confederate soldiers, slaves and the wives back home left wondering whether their loved ones were safe.

“I like that I get to be involved in this 300th anniversary kickoff event,” said actor and Philadelphia native Tracey Terell. “I knew what it was about and I was at my mother’s church and the director asked me if I’d like to be involved and I said ‘of course.’”

Staging the show at the Schwartz in April seemed appropriate because of its location and the month in which the war began and came to an end.

“The Schwartz Center is the perfect location,” Ms. Staley said. “Not only is it a beautiful theater, it’s actually close to where two Civil War camps were in Dover.”

Despite the location, few of the actors are from Dover — the 27-member cast ranges in origin from Rehoboth Beach to Wilmington.

Becki Polk of Milford plays the unusual role of Franklin Samuel Hopkins, a female who dressed as a male to fight in the war.

“It was actually more common than people realize,” she said. “There were plenty of women that either went to war to be with their husbands or because they just wanted to fight for their cause.”

Although Ms. Polk has been acting for years, being in a war production was unknown territory. So she’s watched several war movies preparing for the role.

“They’re not usually the kind of movies I like to watch but I wanted to be able to accurately portray this character and to do that, there was a lot I needed to learn about the era and the history,” she said.

There are plenty of actors such as Ms. Polk who came into the production for the acting, but a surprising amount joined solely for the music.

“For me doing this musical was all about the singing,” said Jacqueline Ashford of Wilmington who sings in a choir with Ms. Staley. “I’ve never acted on stage before but have been a part of the theater community. I love to sing and have been doing it since I was a baby.”

For Ms. Ashford, the show is a family affair, as she has two daughters performing alongside her, Christina Ashford, 21, and Chantalle, 25.

Both have been singing since childhood and acted in high school with Christina who was the first student from Dover High School to be accepted into All-State Drama

Chantalle is a drama teacher at Indian River High School.

“The past few years, I’ve gotten so used to directing, so it’s nice to be on stage again,” she said.

Ms. Ashford plays an older house slave, bestowing knowledge upon her young counterparts.

“She’s just like any elder,” Ms. Ashford said. “She’s an older woman, full of wisdom giving the younger ones the advice and instruction they need to survive.”

Although the Ashfords are seasoned actresses, many of the performers are taking the stage for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.

“I’m 31 now and the last time I acted was in high school,” said Jamar Boyer. “I always enjoyed it when I was younger so when I got the chance to do this, I was really excited. It hasn’t only been fun, it’s also been a learning experience, because there’s a lot I didn’t know about Civil War history.”

The actors and singers weren’t the only ones learning something new during the show. Ms. Staley’s husband Phil got to venture outside his comfort zone by working with his hands.

“I’m a microbiologist by trade and I’m artistic, I do some painting,” he said. “But building sets, I’ve never done anything like it. I’m not a handy man or anything like that.”

Although building is something different for Mr. Staley, working alongside her is nothing new.

“We’ve been together for 46 years and worked on so many projects together, that we’re used to this kind of dynamic,” Mr. Staley said. “But this is probably one of my favorite projects of ours so far.”

“The Civil War” will be performed at the Schwartz Center for the Arts on today, Saturday, April 28 and 29 at 7 p.m. and Sunday and April 30 at 2 p.m.

Adult tickets are $20, senior, military and students are $17. They are available at the door or online at schwartzcenter.com.

The Schwartz Center is at 226 S. State St., Dover.

Ashton Brown is a freelance writer living in Dover.

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