‘The War Shirt’ Dons New Clothing 

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 19, 2023

It was just last year that Santa Barbara based actor-dancer Michael Downey wrote and performed a one-person play titled The War Shirt, which was produced and directed by former Access Theater founder turned visual artist Rod Lathim for Marjorie Luke’s streaming series. The story explored Downey’s experiences as a gay man, his relationship with a disapproving father and the reconciliation that occurred hours before his father’s passing. But both Downey and Lathim sensed that the piece set in motion something more to elucidate. 

The result is The War Shirt: A Dialogue with the Ancestors, a 45-minute documentary collaboration that further investigates concepts in the original play, examining Downey’s ancestral roots in both Africans born into slavery and the Native American culture. For Lathim, the project is a result of intangible influences that have enhanced his intuitive sense and illuminated the development of the play and documentary. 

“The documentary focuses on the ancestors and the fact that they played an incredibly large role in shaping and guiding the process for both of us,” he explained. “It happened a lot in this process of staging the play and it opened our eyes in a huge way to many more possibilities of interpretation.”

The film includes perspectives that draw from American Indian belief systems and South African Zulu healing practices, with appearances by Dr. Jeanne Eder, a Dakota Sioux and adopted member of the Crow tribe; Dr. David Cumes, a South African surgeon and Sangoma practitioner; Davies King, UCSB Distinguished Professor of Theater/Dance, and many others. They’ll all be on hand for a post-screening panel discussion when The War Shirt: A Dialogue with the Ancestors premieres at the Luke on September 19.

While viewing the play, which streams for free online, adds extra perspective, it’s not a prerequisite for the film, Lathim said. 

“We hope the film gets people to welcome the concept of all of our ancestors playing a role in our lives in the physical world, and that there are messages sent, paths that are changed and guided so that we understand things better.

Visit www.luketheatre.org.


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