WATERTOWN — In this pandemic year, reimagining theatrical performance means exploring not just the digital space but that infinitely roomy analog space known as the outdoors.
In any year, heightening theater’s relevance and immediacy means grappling with urgent social issues such as the kind of entrenched racial injustice that has spawned massive nationwide protests in 2020.
New Repertory Theatre tackles both the performative and thematic sides of that equation with its premiere of “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” copresented with the Watertown Free Public Library and the Historical Society of Watertown. Scripted by local dramatist Ken Green and directed by Michael Ofori, it’s a solo play set in the 19th century that has the ongoing struggles of the 21st century very much on its mind.
The estimable Kadahj Bennett plays Lenox, a Black barber in Watertown who served in the Civil War with the storied 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, rising to the rank of sergeant. As Bennett leads patrons on a one-hour stroll to notable sites in and around Watertown Square, Lenox’s first-person narrative outwardly resembles one of those tourist-friendly guided expeditions.
But this is no anodyne history tour. Embedded throughout “The Charles W. Lenox Experience” are pointed reminders of how little the nation had done to deserve the service of Black soldiers — and how little it appreciated their sacrifice once they had helped to save it.
An ambulatory play in an outdoor environment poses inevitable logistical challenges, but they are adroitly handled by Bennett, who has emerged as one of Boston’s most compelling actors with electric performances in works like Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” and Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: a break beat play.”
In “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” Bennett manages to create a character of breadth and depth despite aural competition from vehicular traffic (and, at one point during the performance I attended, the blaring of a fire truck). From start to finish, the actor vividly communicates a sense of Lenox’s personality, idealism, humor, integrity, and pride.
As the play begins, Lenox is avidly reading a newspaper that announces the attack on Fort Sumter. Though at 37 he’s not young, Lenox is energized, itching to enlist, eager to seize the chance to help topple slavery (and, in the process, invidious white assumptions about the capabilities of Black soldiers). His willingness to sign up makes his father John (also played by Bennett), the founder of the family-run barber shop, none too happy. But Charles is adamant. “I’m going to fight if they let me. Put my name on that paper,” says the son. “Because it’s my country too.”
Bennett’s Lenox takes us through his wartime experiences, a personal journey marked by camaraderie with his fellow Black soldiers (“We’ve been out here doing everything they said we couldn’t do, and ain’t going to stop now . . . We sent those Rebs running like they stole something") but grimly annotated by death tolls from Civil War battles. The play’s most indelible scene takes place hours before the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in which the 54th Infantry sustained major losses. In terms that echo the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V,” Lenox tells the troops: “This is what you’re going to go back and tell your people about. When they ask you what you did for your people, this is the moment you’re going to tell ‘em about.”
Bennett’s gait slows and his posture becomes stooped as Lenox ages, bringing us to 1889 when, now in his mid-60s, he attends the dedication of a Civil War monument at Watertown’s Saltonstall Park and discovers that the monument’s inscription speaks of the preservation of the union but makes no mention of the fight to end slavery. “It ain’t telling the whole story,” he says.
“The Charles W. Lenox Experience” is a small but valuable attempt to round out that story and underscore the bravery of Black soldiers.
The first of a planned New Rep series of “Historical Moving Plays,” it’s an auspicious start. Outdoor performances obviously won’t pay the bills the way sold-out mainstage productions do, but at least until winter descends, they’re a way for theater companies to remain engaged with their communities. Especially if, as with “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” the works combine a strong sense of place with a story that is well worth telling.
THE CHARLES W. LENOX EXPERIENCE
Play by Ken Green. Directed by Michael Ofori. Copresented by New Repertory Theatre, the Watertown Free Public Library, and the Historical Society of Watertown. At: Watertown Square. Through Nov. 8. Tickets $20. www.newrep.org/productions/lenox-experience/