At intermission, they are encouraged to walk through the History Center’s Civil War exhibition and admire its extensive collection of rifles and ordnance, with words from Ms. Trethewey’s imagined monologue by a black Union soldier still fresh in their ears: “Some names shall deck the page of history/as it is written on stone. Some will not.”
The wrongs Ms. Trethewey describes have not been easily righted. As calls for the removal of Confederate symbols have mounted, particularly around the South, the backlash from neo-Confederates and other whites concerned that their own history is being erased has been occasionally ugly, and even deadly. Though many see the public memorials to the breakaway Southern states as little more than celebrations of white supremacy, President Trump has lamented the removal of “our beautiful” Confederate statues.
At the same time, amid the shoving, shouting and violence, a more measured conversation is being had about the recalibration of American history and the rethinking of historical symbols, one in which the art world has played a central role.
Artists, art historians and preservationists have weighed in on what to do with the decommissioned Confederate statues, and on questions of their artistic merit. In Baltimore, a statue of a pregnant black woman with a raised fist, created by the artist Pablo Machioli, briefly occupied a space where the city’s Lee-Jackson memorial had stood before its removal in August. Good-natured petitions calling for alternative monuments to the African-American hip-hop artists OutKast and Missy Elliott have appeared in their respective hometowns of Atlanta and Portsmouth, Va.
This is the context in which the Alliance seeks to interject its revival of “Native Guard.” Ms. Trethewey’s celebrated 2006 book is itself a kind of literary monument to her experience growing up in Mississippi as a biracial child, to her African-American mother, and to the Louisiana Native Guards, the black Union soldiers who fought on the Mississippi coast and guarded a prison camp for captured Confederates at Ship Island, south of Biloxi.
“The book is trying, in many ways, to talk about those things that have been forgotten or erased or somehow left out of the historical record, and I’m very concerned with trying to inscribe, or reinscribe, those things,” Ms. Trethewey, an English professor at Northwestern University, said in a recent phone interview.
The Alliance’s artistic director, Susan V. Booth, approached the Atlanta History Center with the idea of staging the play alongside its collection of Civil War artifacts. It was enthusiastically embraced by F. Sheffield Hale, the center’s president and CEO. “I said, ‘Hell yeah,” recalled Mr. Hale, who said he was already a fan of the book. “It fits into our new strategic plan of working with other institutions and getting different people from different ZIP codes and different interests in here,” he said.
Mr. Hale is not a historian but a history buff, an Atlanta native with a law degree from the University of Virginia. Since taking the helm of the museum in 2012, he has helped raise $65 million for the center, bringing glossy upgrades to its main campus in the affluent Buckhead neighborhood, but also a fresh emphasis on diversity and historical nuance.