CIVIL WARRIORS tells the true story of 26 African-American men from Tompkins County in upstate New York who enlisted in the US Colored Troops and fought in the Civil War. Their compelling story unfolds through a unique interweaving of historical images and the rhythm and energy of contemporary spoken word performances. Six actors deliver dramatic spoken word performances in period dress, their words interwoven with historical images and music. Narrator Sean Eversley Bradwell, professor at Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, provides historical background and helps us understand the events of the period and their impact on us today.
The story begins on Christmas Eve 1863, when a recruiter for the US Colored Troops (USCT) arrives at the St. James AME Zion Church, welcomed by Reverend Zachariah Tyler. Reverend Tyler’s teenage son John and his young friend John Sorrell are among the first to step up to enlist in the 26th USCT. Reverend Tyler and John’s father Edward Sorrell, both in their 40s and well past the age of most recruits, soon stand up to join their sons and 22 other men, to fight for the freedom of their people and the preservation of the Union.
We follow these men through their arduous training at the USCT training camp on Rikers Island in New York Harbor, then on a strange voyage to South Carolina aboard the troopship The Warrior. At the Battle of Honey Hill, Reverend Tyler sorrowfully presides over a battlefield funeral service for a fellow Ithacan. Back home, news arrives to Sydney Sorrell that a message has arrived for her from the War Department, and she must make the dreadful walk into town to learn whether it is her son John or her husband Edward who will never return home.
When the war ends, the surviving USCT soldiers return to Ithaca. They are victorious and ready for change, but have no way of knowing how many years still lie ahead in the African-American struggle for civil rights and respect. As CIVIL WARRIORS concludes, an aged Reverend Tyler sits in his rocking chair on his front porch on Wheat Street, thinking back to his time as a soldier, recalling the courage of his comrades and the hardships they faced. He wonders if those who fought and died will be remembered in the years to come. The audience, too, is led to reflect on the legacy of slavery and the struggle to overcome institutionalized racism.
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