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Perham's Chuck Johnson takes 1st with his original play, 'The Night Before Gettysburg'

He wrote “The Night Before Gettysburg” on the reflections of Abraham Lincoln finishing his speech in the remaining hours before the dedication of the cemetery.

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Chuck Johnson encourages audience members to reflect on the lives lost during the Civil War and wrestles with the existence of slavery as he portrays Abraham Lincoln in his original play, "The Night Before Gettysburg." Johnson performed the play at the Madhatters One Act Play Showcase in Wadena on Oct. 24, 2021, winning three awards including First Place for Outstanding Play. (Rebecca Mitchell / Perham Focus)
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When Chuck Johnson got in front of the curtain again after a three-year hiatus from local theatre, it was with the goal of giving people a peek inside the mind of Abraham Lincoln, in the hours leading up to the celebrated Civil War-era President's famous Gettysburg Address.

That goal was met this past Sunday, Oct. 24, when Johnson took the stage at the Wadena Memorial Auditorium to perform as Lincoln in an original play that he also penned, called "The Night Before Gettysburg." The play, and Johnson's emotional performance in it, won three awards at the Madhatters One Act Play Showcase that day: Best Lead Actor, Best Original Script, and First Place for Outstanding Play.

A veteran actor who's appeared in many local live theatre productions over the years, Johnson is well known in Perham as a former community newspaper man and retired economic development director for the city. "The Night Before Gettysburg" is his first dip into playwriting.

The show centers on the thoughts of Lincoln as he finishes writing his famed address, and reflects on slavery and lives lost in the war.

“Nobody knows what he (Lincoln) had left to finish and so I just said, ‘Well, he’s not going to really do writing. I think his writing is done, he’s going to polish.’ And I took those key points that may have been missing and led the audience to those key lines,” Johnson said. “It was just a real honor to enter Abraham Lincoln’s head and try to philosophize what he may have been thinking. And philosophize not just finishing of the speech, but his thoughts on slavery and war.”

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After reading and researching about Abraham Lincoln, Chuck Johnson wrote the play "The Night Before Gettysburg" that he said was a "real honor" to try to philosophize like Lincoln and share in the emotional performance. He hopes to bring Lincoln to more venues, like school classrooms. (Rebecca Mitchell / Perham Focus)

At the beginning of the play, Lincoln talks about the deaths of three of his sons , who died at young ages due to various illnesses, and about how so many people were saying “I don’t want to lose another child" during the time of the Civil War. He then transitions into his disgust about slavery. Johnson has Lincoln question, “What is slavery? Why are men enslaved?” and then attempt to answer those questions.

Johnson believes his question-asking skills from his years as a journalist helped strengthen the play. He often took his questions to Google to learn specifics about the history of the era and gain insights into Lincoln's life and mind. He shares facts in the show, like the number of troops who died at the Battle of Gettysburg , and the number of days Major General George G. Meade led the Union forces before the battle, to give the story more depth and meaning.

“I think that gave so much more impact to the listeners; it wasn’t just that he (Confederate General Robert E. Lee) lost a third of his men, which is huge, but 25,000 men didn’t go home with him,” Johnson said. “Wow. It was a fascinating journey.”

Johnson said he worked "really, really hard" on writing and rehearsing the show. The 69-year-old added with a laugh that, “The older you get, the less sticky you are.”

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Chuck Johnson, right, accepts his awards for best lead actor and best original script from Zoe Curtis, left, at the Madhatters One Act Play Showcase on Oct. 24, 2021. (Rebecca Mitchell / Perham Focus)

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Johnson’s wins at the Showcase earned him $500 in prize money — and the possibility of bringing "The Night Before Gettysburg" to more venues, such as school classrooms.

Wadena Madhatters Community Theatre is a non-profit organization that performs two shows a year and hosts a camp for kids in the summer. To get involved, contact Michelle Curtis at 218-640-3268 or Bronwynn Touchette at 218-820-8740. The Madhatters' next show will be “Into the Woods” in spring 2022, with auditions Jan. 7-9 in Wadena.

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While portraying Abraham Lincoln for the evening, Johnson reviews the Gettysburg Address on Oct. 24, 2021. (Rebecca Mitchell / Perham Focus)

Related Topics: THEATER
Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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