The Trials of Sam Houston, by playwright Aaron Loeb, centers on the 1832 trial of Sam Houston after Houston attacked a congressman on the streets of Washington, D.C., with a cane.
The two-act play will premiere Friday at the Dallas Theater Center. The theater commissioned the play, directed by Kevin Moriarty, eight years ago.
"First and foremost, Aaron has found several true stories from history that are as surprising and entertaining as contemporary fiction," says Moriarty, director of DTC. "The play is filled with complicated, nuanced characters."
Loeb spent the last 10 years researching the Jacksonian era, which began in 1829 with the election of President Andrew Jackson and ended around the beginning of the Civil War. Loeb says he spent a lot of time trying to understand the era and the many notable figures who played large roles in this critical moment in America’s history, including familiar names such as John Quincy Adams, Francis Scott Key, James K. Polk, Jackson and Houston. Loeb settled on Houston, whom he calls "a professional American."
Loeb recites the long list of Sam Houston’s achievements: "He was the only man to serve as governor of two states, he served in both houses of Congress, was president of the sovereign nation of Texas."
Loeb says he found an interesting entry point into the life of Houston when he learned about Jeff Hamilton, Houston’s former slave, who lived to be 101 years old. Loeb’s play takes place one night in 1936 when Hamilton recounts his story after giving a speech in Dallas at the Texas Centennial.
Moriarty says the story is relevant to current events.
"How can our country hold together as a cohesive whole when it is filled with so many individuals who don’t see eye-to-eye on some of the most fundamental issues?" Moriarty asks. "And how do we keep our democratic institutions healthy and strong when people feel so passionately about an issue that they would rather take up arms than submit to the will of the majority? These are the questions Sam Houston and his contemporaries faced."
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Loeb says while you might call him a history buff, he is really "just obsessed with how history influences the stories we tell about ourselves and about America." He is careful to say that the play is not history.
"Facts are altered in order to tell the story, but it is historical," he says. "Secrets are revealed, mysteries are unveiled and drama ensues."
Loeb's last play was a comic romp called Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party. It traveled the country in 2010 and also centered on a trial, albeit one Loeb concocted for the purpose of discussing what he calls the "decloseting of history." Loeb, a video-game designer, also authored First Person Shooter, a drama about the relationship of violent video games to real-world violence.
After a decade spent researching the life and times of Houston, Loeb is taking a break from the past. His next play, commissioned by San Francisco Playhouse, will be contemporary, he says.