Most people wouldn’t think to go to a national monument to see a work by some of the writers currently making waves on and off Broadway. But the National Park Service’s Federal Hall in downtown New York City is exactly where locals and tourists alike can see a new work by the likes of Lisa D'Amour, Bruce Norris, Larissa FastHorse, Michael R. Jackson, Tanya Barfield, and Melissa James Gibson. The Democracy Project explores the conversations of American politics that have continued to affect people for over 200 years since George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall. “The story of Federal Hall, where there were these historic moments that did seed a democracy that works in many ways, is important. But at the same time, it left people out and harmed certain people. That is a contradiction that is really hard to live with,” says contributing playwright Lisa D’Amour. She continues, “Living in this country and grappling with The Constitution is not an easy process. That was an engine to what we were doing, acknowledging that that has to be reflected in the show.”
Presented by the National Park Service and the Federal Hall Conservancy, The Democracy Project runs at the Federal Hall National Memorial through July 22—and performances are free and open to the public. D’Amour is one of the project’s six writers as “this isn't really something that should be written by one person, it's a very multi-vocal story.” To tell it, the production assembled a diverse group of writers to tell different facets of the story of the United States—such as Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse, who was just on Broadway with The Thanksgiving Play, and Tony winner Michael R. Jackson of A Strange Loop. D'Amour herself is also a Broadway playwright—her play Airline Highway was produced in 2015.
The Democracy Project touches upon important conversations in American politics that echo through the centuries and continue to affect people today. It investigates the debates about abolishing slavery, arguments about updating The Constitution with the Bill of Rights, and the Treaty of New York between Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and U.S. Secretary of War Henry Knox—against the backdrop of George Washington’s presidential inauguration on April 30, 1789.
At the beginning of the process (which was before the pandemic upended theatre), each of the writers wrote “very separate scenes, and then a little further into the process, we wanted to find a way to weave all of the scenes together,” D’Amour explains. That integration became mostly D’Amour’s job. “I was charged with writing the ‘contemporary’ scene, which is the last scene. We were all throwing in ideas, and there’s definitely writing [in that last scene] by all the writers. There's a real collaborative feeling in that final scene,” she shares. It’s an appropriate reflection in the process of the show’s content: democracy at its best should be a collaborative effort that gives a platform for everyone’s voice.
As D’Amour developed a frame for the show, she “got very interested in this idea of unmasking, and getting down to a real conversation in the room.” The point is to draw a very explicit connection between the conversations over 200 years ago, and the ways we are still having those conversations today.
And the ideas in the room didn’t only come from the writers. Jake Hart, who is a Lenape actor, stars in the show as Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray. Hart had been a part of the production throughout the workshop process, and suggested the idea of stepping forward and unmasking himself at the end as Lenape and not Creek. It’s also an important moment as Federal Hall stands on unceded Lenape land. Another line in the work came from Nathan Hinton and Tatiana Williams, who both play enslaved people in The Democracy Project. “The actors talked about how playing a slave as a Black actor comes at an emotional cost,” D’Amour shares. “Some of those lines about playing only three-fifths of a character are very new lines from this rehearsal process that were a collaboration with Tanya Barfield and me. It was a very delicate process considering what the actors needed.” That acknowledgment within the play is part of how The Democracy Project talks about the way America’s past is still part of its present.
During a workshop last summer, a passionate debate broke out among the writers and director Tamilla Woodard. D’Amour explains, “I had this idea of going back to nature, to before. And then Tamilla, who's a Black female director was like, ‘I don't want to go back. That means you have to go back through slavery.’ And then Larissa FastHorse came in with, ‘This is a moot conversation because no one should be here at all.’ We were having the argument in a dynamic and respectful way among ourselves, and we were like, ‘Oh, this is the show.’”
D’Amour’s impulse to deconstruct the building is partially from her own impulse as a writer. The playwright's interest in writing plays rooted in a certain place is also evident in her previous work. D’Amour penned Broadway’s Airline Highway, which is set in the parking lot of a motel alongside the Airline Highway, which is the name of a real-life throughway in Louisiana. “I was thinking a lot about the building that is Federal Hall right now. I was interested in this idea of what would it mean to take apart the building to see what was there before, and to be left with just the people.” In both Airline Highway and The Democracy Project, it’s about telling the untold history of spaces, and how those histories reverberate in the lives of the people occupying those spaces today.
In The Democracy Project, D’Amour reveals details of the building’s history. Spoiler alert: the Federal Hall of Washington’s day is not the same structure as the one the play takes place in. The original building stood on the same site, but the one that stands at 26 Wall Street today was originally built as a Customs House in 1842 (more than 50 years after Washington’s inauguration). It then became a Subtreasury building until 1925. Today’s Federal Hall became recognized officially as a historic site in 1939, carrying the mythos of the building it replaced.
As D’Amour says, “We are the ones that are making America now.” But creating an America for everyone is where democracy becomes so complex. And Michael R. Jackson captured that in a simple lyric for the last song of the show: “Everybody’s dream is not the same.”