‘Moving play’ brings Black soldier back to life

Kadahj Bennett as Sgt. Charles W. Lenox. Photo courtesy New Rep Theatre

WATERTOWN – “All the world’s a stage,” says the character Jacques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”  That’s especially true during a pandemic.

Outside – in this case, Watertown Square and nearby sites — is safer and, on a perfect early fall afternoon, very pleasant.

Watertown Square happens to be the stage of the first of the Watertown Historical Moving Plays, presented by the New Repertory Theatre in conjunction with the Watertown Historical Society and the Watertown Free Public Library.

“The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” written by Ken Green and directed by Michael Ofori, is a one-person show performed by Kadahj Bennett that explores the life of Sgt. Charles W. Lenox, a Black barber from Watertown who enlisted as a private in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The regiment inspired the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, named for the colonel who commanded it, and the men were depicted in the Academy Award-winning 1989 film “Glory.”

Kadahj Bennett as Sgt. Charles W. Lenox. New Rep Theatre

As Lenox leads us, he proudly notes that the barbershop operated by him and his father had become an “institution” on Main Street in Watertown Square, frequented by diplomats and Black luminaries such as the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

He talks about “debates” with his father John, who decried the Civil War as a “white man’s war” that colored people – as they were referred to at the time – had no business getting involved with.

That soldiers were being paid $13 a month with the promise of an additional $100 bonus to be paid at war’s end, “good money” even for a barber in a successful business.

After his earlier attempts to enlist were unsuccessful, he eventually and proudly dons the uniform of the Union soldier on February 28, 1863. Bennett as Lenox leads participants on a tour of significant sites in his life, such as his barbershop and Watertown’s Civil War monument.

Covid-19 protocols are in place. The tours are limited to 15 participants. All participants are wearing masks, socially distanced at the various sires near

The safety protocols necessitated by Covid-19 are challenges, but not insurmountable ones. Bennett as Lenox wears a face shield, but a microphone inside the shield allows his voice to be heard on a portable loudspeaker, which also provides period music.  

The company of artists and designers, all people of color, is also in keeping with New Rep Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt’s institution of  extensive anti-racism policies and programs in the wake of police brutality incidents that have roiled the country all summer and now into the fall.

“We are so excited to bring this project to our Watertown and New Rep communities,” said Bobbitt. “It’s heartbreaking to not be able to produce the shows we had scheduled for the MainStage this fall, and to not see our audiences’ smiling faces in the MCA every day. Watertown Historical Moving Plays give us an opportunity to safely interact with our community, give you all something unique to do, and uplift the stories of a local Black historical figure.”

As theater companies continually re-invent themselves during the pandemic, this venture recalls Bobbitt’s past work with museums and other cultural organizations that were the inspiration for this series of works.

The heroics of the 54th Regiment were legendary, including the battle of Fort Wagner, where 300 members of the 600-string regiment were either killed, maimed, or injured.

Lenox, who died in 1896, will end his journey at Watertown’s Civil War Monument in Saltonstall Park, where he asked an audience member to read the inscription at the base of the monument.

“Nothing about slavery, huh?” he asked bitterly, noting that the monument “didn’t tell the whole story.”

An older, more wizened Lenox remains proud of what he and the 54th did to preserve The Union, but there is also bitterness that it did not result in meaningful change when they arrived back home.

“The freed colored man was seen as dangerous,” said Lenox in describing his decision to forego the bonus promised him at the end of the war as well as his pension.

“The Charles W. Lenox Experience” is winningly performed by Bennett, skillfully directed by Ofori and retold well by playwright Green while offering a window into a story that needs to be remembered.

It’s an easy, comfortable, and accessible safe way to dip your toes back into the theatrical waters while supporting a theater group that is, as are all such organizations, struggling to keep going until we all reach the other side.

“The Charles W. Lenox Experience” is the first in a series of Watertown Historical Moving Plays and will run through  Nov. 8 with outings scheduled for Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 15 Galen St., Watertown Square. Each outing will last no longer than 60 minutes. Tickets – there are no paper tickets, with all tickets purchased by phone or online — are $20. For ticket information, call the Box Office at (617) 923-8487 or go to tickets@newrep.org.

More information about Watertown Historical Moving Plays can be found at newrep.org/moving-plays/.

The New Repertory Theatre’s “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” a Watertown Historical Moving Play. Performed by Kadahj Bennett. Directed by Michael Ofori. Assistant direction by Kolton Bradley. Written by Ken Green. Costume design by Kiara Escalera. Through Nov. 9. Newrep.org.