SEGUIN, Texas (KXAN) — The year was 1917.
The U.S. had just entered World War I, and across the country, Germans and German-Americans came under suspicion from their neighbors and their government. Thousands were arrested.
“Everybody had sort of this hysteria going around,” Will Windle said.
That’s the background of his new play, “Will’s War,” debuting Friday at Seguin High School’s Performing Arts Center. Windle is also an actor, playing his great-great-grandfather, Will Bergfeld, the real-life farmer born in Seguin at the center of the story.
Bergfeld was a labor organizer in west Texas in 1917 and was arrested on treason charges, accused of plotting against the government and threatening to kill the president. Many others in the union, the Famers’ and Laborers’ Protective Association, were also arrested.
The historical accounts come from court records it took 17 years to find. Janice Woods Windle, Bergfeld’s granddaughter, tracked them down for her novel, also called “Will’s War,” published in 2001.
“Will Bergfeld was 28 years old when my mother was in the room when they broke down all the windows and doors” to arrest him, she said.
His trial plays out on stage, with the audience seated as the jury. “I just want them to reflect and think,” Will Windle said, “‘What is America really supposed to be about?'”
“Each person in the audience needs to make their own decisions,” Woods Windle said, “about how they feel about the process, what happened to Will, and the outcomes.”
A hundred years later, the cast and crew still feel the story’s relevance.
“All you have to do is change the ethnicity of the person that they’re talking about and you have the morning news,” said Jennifer London, the production manager.
Germans in Texas faced discrimination like they did across the country during the Great War, eschewing the customs they brought with them in favor of a low-key lifestyle. Some accounts put the number of arrests of Germans and German-Americans in the U.S. at more than 60,000.
Rebecca Bartlett, who plays Bergfeld’s wife, Virginia, feels not that history is repeating itself now, but that history simply “continued in the same pattern.”
“We’re driven by our fears,” Bartlett said, “and those fears can manifest in anger, they can manifest in actions that don’t really truly represent who we are or what we believe.”
The bond of family is a strong theme running throughout both the book and play. As Bergfeld faces a ruthless prosecutor, his family becomes a source of strength, one the actors and actresses also found working so closely with the family featured in the story.
“They’re so open with showing you anything that you want to help you research your character, to help you know the family,” said Morgana Shaw, who plays Bettie Moss King.
Shaw is reprising her role for this production after playing King in the miniseries “True Women,” based on another historical novel of the same name by Janice Woods Windle. That 1997 series, starring Angelina Jolie, was directed by Karen Arthur. She’s directing “Will’s War” as well.
The play runs two weekends, wrapping up Sunday, Sept. 9. Tickets are available online, through the Seguin Chamber of Commerce or at the door. After it wraps locally, the crew wants to take it on tour, spreading the message that’s resonated throughout American history.
“If we’re not careful,” Windle said, “it could happen all over again.”