Pictured: Emilie Karas. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.
By Abigail Trabue
According to the U.S. Military, a known 250 women fought for the Union during the Civil War and at least three of them were African American. Women in both the Union and Confederacy fought alongside their male counterparts for years; they drilled with their regiments, and they died for their country. The catch? They were all disguised as men, and their contribution to the cause was illegal.
Women were not welcome on the battlefield and if caught, female soldiers faced public shaming, a possible court-martial, prison, and a loss of their rightful pension.
So, how did they do it? How did these women conceal their identity in the face of danger and possible injury or disease? Those are just a few of the questions raised during the hour-long SECRET SOLDIERS: HEROINES IN DISGUISE now playing at The Coterie Theater. Beautifully penned by Wendy Lement, this inventive co-production with UMKC’s Theater Department puts the fate of one injured soldier in our hands, requiring audience members to decide if her medical record should list her alias or her real name.
Set in a Union hospital, SECRET SOLDIERS tells the true story of Sarah Wakeman, aka Private Lyons Wakeman, who secretly enlists as a Union soldier in order to save her father’s farm. After contracting dysentery, Wakeman finds herself in a New Orleans hospital under the care of Nurse Bartlett who decides to conceal Wakeman’s true identity. However, a fellow colleague and early women’s suffrage supporter, Nurse Hughes, has discovered the truth and believes Wakeman should come forward. This is where we come in. Sworn in as medical officers by Dr. William Hire, we listen as both parties state their case and then through a series of flashbacks we learn why Wakeman enlisted, and who she encountered along the way. It’s an incredibly smart and powerful twist.
From a production standpoint, SECRET SOLDIERS hits all the marks and offers the designers and actors a multitude of layers to play in. Kelli Harrod’s set design seamlessly transforms us from place to place, enhanced by Bryce Foster’s rich lighting design, while Costume Designer Jordan New creatively turns a few pieces into multiple characters. The versatile and dynamic cast includes Emilie Karas (who is so genuine and earnest as Wakeman), alongside Freddy Acevedo, Yetunde Felix-Ukwu, Jason Francescon, Khalif Gillet, Chelsea Kinser, Marianne McKenzie, and Roan Ricker, all of whom have the difficult task of transforming from one character to another, a task they all take on with realistic precision.
Maybe this is where you start to wonder if directors Jeff Church and Bree Elrod have guided SECRET SOLDIERS in such a way that leads the audience to the “right” choice. It could naturally happen, especially if a director feels a particular way on the subject. Thankfully, that is not the case. Church and Elrod expertly walk the line between the two decisions, making each audience member dig down deep and make their own choice, choices, that frankly, sum up the female experience in a male-dominated world. As I sat there having to decide which way I was going to vote, I found myself growing angry and frustrated that I even had to consider these two choices. The injustice of it all was enough to make me want to scream. But that’s the point of SECRET SOLDIERS. There is not “right” choice because the path to equality has never been a clear cut straight line.
After the show, my son expressed concern that he’d made the wrong choice, a feeling I understood all too well, and one that prompted an important conversation on our ride home. We the people are still fighting for equal rights in our community, in our country, and in our military. The women of SECRET SOLDIERS faced discrimination for nothing more than the fact that they were women, and under a veil of
SECRET SOLDIERS: HEROINES IN DISGUISE runs through February 10. For more information visit thecoterie.org.