Baltimore's two-year commemoration of the War of 1812 began dramatically Saturday at the site of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry.
Students from the Baltimore School for the Arts chose the fort for their open-air staging of "Fighting for Freedom," a three-scene play that looks at the war's impact on everyday life. They delivered thought-provoking plots to an audience of several hundred who spread across the grass, where a moat had once helped protect the fort. The sun shone on the actors and the sound crew adjusted quickly to the brisk winds.
The cast and crew, all sophomores at the Mount Vernon school, researched the archives at the Maryland Historical Society for insights into the war that many call the nation's second struggle for independence. They visited the fort several times and drew characters from ordinary people, rather than from the few made famous by the war.
"It showed me history is not an old, dusty topic," said Sophia Scanlon, who played the young wife of a missing sailor. "It can come alive through the stories of people who existed."
Their research unearthed one Maryland militiaman's letters home, accounts that inspired one of the scenes. Alexandra Morrell, clad in a floral dress that designer Erin Beuglass had created from a curtain, read her husband's letters to their daughter as their enslaved servant girl shared their concerns. Students developed a love story subplot between the servant and the household's enslaved wagoner. The scene ended with the young man pleading with the girl to run away.
"It will be hard for her to leave the family, but I think she will run off with her man to freedom," said T'Pre Mayer, who portrayed both the girl's hesitation and her love.
Lance Strickland, who played her suitor, said, "The war affected everybody, not just the people in history books, but even the slaves."
Such insights fulfilled instructors' expectations for the project, said Norah Worthington, a costume design teacher, who wrote a pirate scene and worked with the 24 sophomores involved in the production.
"They put together a picture of what those of that era faced," she said. "They focused on everyday people, not the famous, and showed how events affected them. The stories make the war personal."
The drama helped the teenagers understand the local significance, too, she said.
"The scenes played out on streets these students walk every day," Worthington said.
One scene focuses on the riots that broke out on city streets. Again, the students presented a new perspective — that of an assertive woman. Calla Fuqua played the normally docile wife of a shipping merchant, prompted by the war to disagree publicly with her husband. Their encounter occurred on Charles Street, where she finds him safe after a night of rioting.
"The war was about freedom of speech, bringing Canada into the union and impressing American sailors," she said. "I think even the women had to speak up."
Her father, Scott Fuqua, in the audience with several family members, found the play filled with emotional content.
"It really was written spot-on," he said. "They married history and drama so well, and really engaged the audience."
Park Ranger Vince Vaise said the show fills in historical gaps with credible fiction.
"These kids are telling untold and more inclusive stories," he said. "They show what average people were talking about in the Fells Point coffeehouses. They really have blown the dust off the history books. The school, the fort and the historical society give us a real powerhouse of history right here."
James Cooper, who played an investor, said the project gave him new insights into his hometown.
"It really expanded how I think about where I live," he said.
Kenna Ward, 10, sat in the front row with her grandmother, who grew up in South Baltimore and frequently played on the fort grounds as a child.
"I have a test on this war on Tuesday," Kenna said, adding that she hoped she had learned something from the play.
The students will repeat the free performance at 10 a.m. Monday and Tuesday at the fort, 2400 E. Fort Ave., and at 6 p.m. Friday at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Information: nps.gov/fomc or 410-962-4290. There are also plans to stage the show at area schools.