Tag Archives: military

“Bitter Melon” – Reinterpreting the Dewey Monument in Union Square

Robert Aitken’s 1903 sculpture atop the Dewey Monument. Alma de Bretteville was the model. The trident represents Admiral George Dewey’s naval victory. The wreath honors the memory of U.S. President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz. 2008 photo by Carnaval.com Studios.

Although the U.S. declared victory in the Spanish-American War, Filipino insurgents continued to fight for their independence – this time, against the United States. That conflict – the Philippine-American War – began in 1899 and lasted until the U.S. military quelled the rebellion in 1902. Again, U.S. troops were deployed through the Presidio in San Francisco. Thus, in both the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, military personnel were sent through one former Spanish colony (San Francisco) to fight military personnel  in another former Spanish colony (the Philippines).

In the year following the conclusion of the Philippine-American War, the Dewey Monument, a collaboration of sculptor Robert Aitken and architect Newton Tharp, was dedicated in San Francisco’s Union Square. The monument commemorates Admiral George Dewey’s defeat of the Spanish in Manilla Bay in the Philippines, and celebrates the American victory in the Spanish-American War.

The Dewey Monument in Union Square. 2006 photo by Robert Cutts.

Now, over a century later, the Dewey Monument is the subject of a new collaborative work by local artists. On May 25-28, 2012 at 8:00 p.m., “Bitter Melon” will be performed in Union Square as part of the annual Union Square Live program. Ben Wood and his technologist, David Mark, will do large-scale 3D video projections on the Dewey Monument, while choreographer Raissa Simpson and her Push Dance Company will use dance and movement. Their project reinterprets the significance of the Dewey Monument by drawing attention to the costs of war and by considering the ways that war can set human migrations in motion – including the resettlement of Filipinos in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Wood and Simpson, the lead artists, are approaching their interpretations of the Dewey Monument in slightly different ways. Wood is focusing primarily on the Philippine-American War and subsequent attempts by the United States to extend its military influence in the Pacific Rim. He is combining previously-existing film and video content with original material. For the images that he will project onto the Dewey Monument, Wood’s sources include a personal Philippines travelogue film, “Message to Magellan,” as well as his own photographs of cannons in San Francisco’s Presidio that date from the days when California was under Spanish control. Using the soundtrack of the Phoenix Learning Group’s 1974 documentary “The Lure of Empire: America Debates Imperialism,” Wood has selected actors’ spoken recreations of the testimony of Emilio Aguinaldo, Mark Twain, and other participants and contemporary commentators on the Philippine-American War.  Wood will combine these sound recordings with original music composed by José Gimena and performed on traditional Filipino instruments.

A sample of the images that will be projected in 3D on the Dewey Monument by Ben Wood and David Mark.

Regarding public monuments, Wood commented to me,

We often ignore them. There’s a thousand people walking around Union Square not paying attention to the Dewey Monument. How can we bring this story to life? What would happen if we looked at the monument as having been complicit in the notion of war as glorious? What if we looked at it as a living thing that’s been a witness to the horrors and tragedies of war?

Whereas Wood will be depicting specific persons and events, Simpson is taking a different approach. She has drawn on stories from her own Filipino and African American heritage to inspire the Push Dance Company’s performance in “Bitter Melon.” In particular, she has turned to the her family’s experience of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which she speculates may have galvanized the migration of African Americans from the South to other parts of the United States in a way that foreshadowed the later migration of African Americans from the South to San Francisco during World War II. Simpson has also drawn upon her family’s experience during the Philippine-American War. During that conflict, American military personnel subjected Filipino prisoners to a form of torture called the “water cure.” Simpson was struck by the way in which water – something necessary for human life – had galvanized her family to migrate in order to escape flood and torture. The conflicting meanings of water are highlighted in the performance’s title. Bitter melon is a watery vegetable that figured prominently in the Filipino foods that Simpson ate as a youth. Her family had left the Philippines – and the devastating ways water was used there – yet brought the practices of making and sharing watery, life-giving food with them.

Push Dance Company in rehearsals for “Bitter Melon”

As Simpson observed,

This is a piece about what happens to people when they are subjected to violence, tragedy, forced labor, natural disaster. What does that do to people? I told my dancers they’re not necessarily portraying anyone in historical times. I don’t rely on the dancers to tell the story. I’m dealing with the emotionality. I asked my dancers – what was the first time that you had to leave home, the first time you migrated? How did you end up in San Francisco? What compelled you to stay? It’s important to realize that people back then came to San Francisco for some of the same reasons that you and I did.

“Bitter Melon” will be performed May 25-28, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. in Union Square. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit the Push Dance Company website.

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Reenacting the Civil War at Fort Point

Civil War Reenactors at Fort Point. 2009 photo by Penny Meyer.

On August 13, 2011 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Civil War Living History Day will take place at Fort Point in San Francisco’s Presidio, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

San Francisco supported the Union during the American Civil War in the form of volunteer military recruits and the provision of many millions of dollars in gold. In turn, the city was impacted by measures to protect San Francisco Bay from possible Confederate or foreign aggression – including the installation of new batteries on Fort Point, Alcatraz, and Angel Island.

Following the Union victory and possibly as early as the 1890s panoramic exhibitions of the American Civil War were staged in San Francisco.  “Living history” reenactments – in which performers portray historical persons for audiences outside of traditional theatrical settings – have provided further opportunities to interpret the Civil War-era San Francisco. While living history programs can be found in many other parts of California (for example,  Cultural Heritage Day at Fort Ross, Living History and Pioneer Demonstration Days at Sutter’s Fort, Living History Day at the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, and the Old Sacramento Living History Program), Civil War reenactment at the Fort Point is one of the few living history programs in San Francisco.

The National Civil War Association first organized Civil War reenactments at Fort Point in the 1980s in cooperation with the National Park Service.  The program was discontinued in the 1990s, but was revived around 1998 by Mike Musante of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry, Company G, a unit of the American Civil War Association. Musante originally created the event as the occasion for the 20th Maine’s annual meeting and elections. Since then, Musante and a team of associates have worked with the Park Rangers of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to stage Civil War reenactments at Fort Point every January and most Augusts.

Civil War Reenactor at Fort Point. 2009 photo by Penny Meyer.

Reenactors at the Fort Point events are all volunteers, and they are drawn from a variety of organizations, including the American Civil War Association, National Civil War Association, California Historical Artillery Society, Reenactors of the American Civil War, and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. They perform infantry and artillery drills and demonstrate a range of activities from soldiers’ and civilians’ everyday lives – including sewing, quilting, doing laundry, dancing, using telegraph equipment, and medical and surgical procedures. Fife and drum music is performed by the California Consolidated Drum Band, and additional period music is provided by the Fort Point Garrison Brass Band. As Musante explained to me,

“The primary purpose of the event is to provide an educational experience to the visiting public.  We hope to give them an idea of what life was like at the Fort during the period, and some other general military impressions from the Civil War, particularly focusing on life in the Union Army… As a secondary objective we use this as an opportunity to practice our drill in between regular weekend events… and train new recruits.”

Civil War Reenactors at Fort Point. 2010 photo by Craig Glassner.

Organizers of the event emphasize what they regard as appropriate attire for reenactors, instructing them not to wear “blue jeans or sunglasses” or “non- period jewelry and wristwatches.” This speaks to a distinction made by some living history performers among so-called “farbs” (those who allow for anachronisms in their costuming), “mainstream” performers (who strive for authenticity in outward appearance and stay in character in front of audiences) and “progressives” (who seek authenticity in their costuming beyond outward appearance and who stay in character throughout the duration of an event). National Park Service regulations prohibit reenactors from staying in character when interacting with members of the public, but otherwise Musante characterized most of the reenactors at Fort Point as mainstream, along with “a good handful that are progressive.” Because the costs associated with appropriate costuming might otherwise be prohibitive for potential new recruits, items of military and civilian clothing are available on loan.

For an example of a unit of the American Civil War Association that will be participating in Civil War Living History Day on August 13, see the website of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry, Company B. For additional information about the event, see the event webpage on the site of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry, Company G.

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