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Civil War setting creates new obstacles for cast

Set in the midst of the bloodiest war in American history, Missouri Western’s Theatre & Cinema troupe brings to life the everlasting tale of true love and tragedy in William Shakespeare’s classic play “Romeo and Juliet.”

2011 is the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and St. Joseph has a rich history during the period. Director Tee Quillin felt it essential to set the traditionally 16th century play in 1861.  Quillin’s plan is to create a great performance and honor St. Joseph’s past.

“I wanted this to be an outreach to St. Joseph,” Quillin said. “I wanted to get as many people from the community involved in this as possible.”

One thing Quillin has done to get the community involved is asking the Missouri State Guard Civil War re-enactors to entertain audience members. The Guard will be setting up replica camps for the Thursday and Saturday performances. The camps are designed to give people a glimpse of what it was like during the time, complete with tents, campfires and horses.  The re-enactors will be doing some simulation drills as well.

Quillin is confident that Shakespeare’s play will fit perfectly in the St. Joseph area and 19th century timeframe.

“The story is timeless,” Quillin said. “The moment you have your first crush on a girl, you can relate to Romeo’s balcony speech.”

There is only one Union soldier in the play, but there will be plenty of action. The play isn’t about the American Civil War, but about a man and a woman in love with each other who are hindered by their quarrelling families. Separated by a war and a river, Romeo and Juliet are destined to fall in love.

Andy Tyhurst, who is playing the part of Tybalt, feels that the story fits well with St. Joseph and the American Civil War era. Tyhurst explains how ecstatic Quillin was when he came up with the setting for the play.

“He became fascinated with the history of St. Joseph,” Tyhurst said. “It’s such a bold vision, and I’m telling you: It works.”

Setting a play in the Civil War brings up some potentially uncomfortable issues dealing with race. Quillin dealt with the issue sensitively and with humor, according to Jeff Jones, one of the black actors in the cast.

“We made a joke about ‘Oh wait, he wants to make me a slave?’” Jones said.

According to Quillin, he cast the play with colorblind eyes.

“Several African Americans were set on lead roles,” Quillin said. “I came close, very close, to casting an African-American Juliet with Caucasian parents—I’m all about colorblind casting, and I would’ve never given it a second thought.”

Jones is playing Friar John in several of the matinees and at the Saturday night performance and is playing a Capulet servant the other nights. Jones said that the latter role did not make him uncomfortable.

“The way that they do productions around here, it’s very dignified. They’re respectful,” Jones said. “Some people in this production have to go places they don’t like to go, but they go there for the sake of the production.”

Quillin agreed that the black actors have faced the issue with professionalism.

“They [African-American cast members] all said ‘No, no, this is history; our grandparents and great grandparents had to go through this, and that’s what we’re doing,’” he said. “They jumped in and said ‘Don’t hold back, we want it to be like it was.’”

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