Chicago Theatre Review
What Will You Fight For?
The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier- Permoveo Productions, in association with Pride Films & Plays
A timely, inspirational and emotionally awakening new musical is having its world premier in Chicago. For many reasons this is a must-see piece of theatre. Jay Paul Deratany has written a book, part historical research and part creative invention, that tells the unusual, true story of real-life woman, an Irish immigrant, who lived in rural Illinois. The difference is that Jennie Hodgers chose to live her life as a man, named Albert D.J. Cashier.
Since precise historical records from the Civil War era are sparse, particularly when recording the life of an ordinary citizen, it’s not known precisely why Hodgers decided to change genders. Jennie’s mother died when she was very young, and it may be that her stepfather dressed her in men’s clothing so that it would be easier for her to find work. She would’ve also found it easier to travel when she stowed away from New York to Illinois. It may be that she was a closeted gay woman; it’s documented that she had a very close female friend during her lifetime. But the playwright posits that Jennie, who lived most of her life as Albert Cashier, was a trans man.
Only a year into the Civil War, President Lincoln pleaded for more soldiers. In 1862, nineteen year old Albert Cashier decided to answer the call and enlisted for a three-year term. He was assigned to Company G of the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment and fought in over 40 battles, under the guidance of General Ulysses S. Grant, including the bloody siege at Vicksburg. Following a severe illness, his capture by the Confederate Army and watching his soldier comrades die in his arms, Albert was awarded an honorable discharge in 1865, just as the War was ending.
He returned to his home in Belvidere, Illinois, where, as a man, he could vote and collect a veteran’s pension, supplemented by a number of odd jobs. In 1911 Cashier was hit by a car, breaking his leg. Unable to work any longer, he relocated to the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy. In his later years, after Cashier developed dementia, he was moved to the Watertown State Hospital for the Insane. There, discovered to be female, he was forced to wear a corset and a dress, much against Albert’s adamant protests. When Cashier passed away in 1915, he was buried in his uniform with full military honors. His tombstone proclaims the names of both genders.
A top Chicago lawyer and well-known human rights advocate, Jay Paul Deratany, the book writer of this new musical, has proved himself a noteworthy playwright and screenwriter, as well. His works have been produced by Bailiwick and Victory Gardens, while his play about the tragic murder of a young Middle Eastern man, “Haram Iran,” earned him a GLAAD Award nomination. But it’s said that when the text isn’t enough to convey the full meaning and emotion of a story, music can transcend all words. Collaborating with composers Joe Stevens and Keaton Wooden, who also directs this world premier with spunk and spirit, Deratany triumphantly enters the world of musical theatre.
But besides telling Albert’s story, this musical probes other issues. It asks of several characters, “What are you willing to fight for?” We meet, for example, a very likable, sincerely honorable young enlisted soldier named Jeffrey Davis, who becomes Albert’s best buddy. As their companionship grows we increasingly see that Jeffrey is falling love with his friend. This story element, real or fictional, sheds light on how closeted gay feelings and relationships had to be kept during this period of time. When Jeffrey discovers that Albert is actually a woman, he feels that their relationship can continue and be sanctioned in public. However much, Albert loves his friend, he has no intention of becoming a woman and marrying Jeffrey.
We also meet another repressed gay young man named John. He works as a hospital attendant at the Soldiers Home, where Albert is residing. When he’s discovered singing and dancing, John is immediately dismissed; but Albert empathizes with John’s need to truly be himself and gives him a large enough sum of money to start a new life in Chicago. Young Albert befriends another fellow enlistee, an African American soldier named Walter, who’s facing his own struggle. In spite of being a skilled field surgeon, the other soldiers make fun of him because of his skin color. While the rest of the regiment condemns Walter for his race, Albert sees in his friend a kindred spirit, another human being who simply wants to be seen for who he is and appreciated for his skill and talent.
Nurse Smith, one of the important supporting characters in this story, is portrayed in this production by a transgender actor. Delia Kropp, a talented actor who boasts an impressive resume, and was the first transgender actor to play the lead in a production of “I Am My Own Wife.” However, in this play, Kropp’s character is confusing. The audience accepts Nurse Smith as female, but the actor’s deep voice and mysterious manner seems to hint at something else. In one dramatic scene between Albert and the nurse, she tries to force the retired soldier to admit that he’s actually a woman. The audience then almost expects, from the nurse’s guarded manner, that she, too, may be harboring her own secret identity. As it turns out, the only confession we hear is that Nurse Smith has experienced prejudice as a 19th century working woman. This may be a problem with either the script or the direction.
The cast is magnificently led by two perfectly cast, wonderfully talented and truly committed actors, who share the title role. The diminutive Dani Shay, a non-binary powerhouse trans singer/actor and activist, who will be remembered for her appearances on “America’s Got Talent” and “The Glee Project,” plays the younger Albert; Katherine L Condit, who has impressed locally at the Goodman, the Chicago Shakespeare Project and Bailiwick, as well as on Broadway, is riveting as older Albert Cashier. Both actors provide the heart and soul of this production, each playing Cashier with a distinctive passion and honesty. Shay’s handsome, youthful face and physique convinces audiences of a teenager fighting for personal independence. Condit’s gritty strength and determination, railing against all odds and oppression, completes this character’s heartbreaking, yet admirable journey.
Billy Rude is absolute perfection as Jeffrey. Although this affable, fast-talking character is initially a bit difficult to understand, Rude brings an incandescent radiance to this role. His Jeffrey is so warm, approachable and good-humored that the audience immediately takes to him, much like Albert. Mr. Rude demonstrates a marvelous talent for singing and dancing that should guarantee this young actor a long career.
He’s joined by talented Cameron Armstrong, seen on such TV shows as “The X-Factor” and “Boy Band,” as a heartbreaking, sincere young medic named Walter. Chuck Quinn IV, a gifted young Chicago triple threat, who’s already been seen on several area stages, is both fierce and funny as Billy. Handsome Jonathan Stombres, who, like most of the ensemble, plays several roles, is particularly memorable as John, the singing-dancing hospital assistant. His full vocals and enthusiastic dance breaks, plus the heart and humor he brings to this closeted wannabe ragtime performer, make this young man another actor to watch. Completing the cast are Gabriel Fries, who brings strength and kindhearted charity to his portrayals of both Sgt. Collins and Dr. Kirby; Jordan Dell Harris as Joe; Roy Samra as the Bugle Boy; and Josiah Robinson as the antagonistic Hearing Officer.
Jeremy Hollis, known for his more majestic scenic designs in productions of “The Nance” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” dials it back for a more simple, multipurpose setting that offers flexibility and simplicity. His rustic, provincial barn wood setting provides a backdrop for G. “Max” Maxin’s atmospheric, historically accurate projections, and is lit with mood and color by musa “hex” bouderdaben. Uriel Gomez’s costumes modestly evoke the Civil War era as well as the years beyond.
Derek Van Barham’s choreography for the soldiers, while beautiful, brisk and balletic, is sometimes jarring, rather like watching the dancing gang members of “West Side Story.” Jon Schneidman, who both wears the hats of musical director and conductor/pianist, capably leads his five-member backstage bluegrass band in the up right corner of the set. And while the music of Stevens and Wooden are beautifully evocative, creating a distinct feeling for time and place, many of their lyrics are often annoyingly repetitive. Some of the lush, folksy, backwoods-sounding melodies would benefit greatly by more variety of thought and words.
But make no mistake: this is a gorgeous, noteworthy and very important piece of theatre that begs to be experienced. Certainly it’s not news that, disguised as men, women have secretly been fighting wars since the beginning of time. But this story’s become even more timely, not only because the public has recently become aware of transgender individuals existing in society, but because of the current administration’s executive decision to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. What this musical reminds us is that it’s important to remember that people are people. They deserve far more dignity than merely being given labels. We’re all human beings who must always be seen as sum total of our actions and who we are inside. That’s the civility of an incredible person who called himself Albert Cashier.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 31-October 15 by Permoveo Productions, in association with Pride Films & Plays, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by going to www.theatreinchicago.com.