Playwrights go straight to the soldiers to bring their stories to the stage
Published: December 1, 2010
By KJ Sanchez and Emily Ackerman
At Center Stage through Dec. 19.
With the first few lines of ReEntry, playwrights KJ Sanchez and Emily Ackerman’s treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning home from war, the audience at Center Stage’s Head Theater is supposed to imagine they’re being introduced to boot camp. It’s a fairly convincing moment. The opening MC—the Commanding Officer—stomps onstage in his desert camouflage to school the audience in the logic behind basic training. And actor Joe Harrell is a former Marine Corps CO who spent a decade in the corps as a drill instructor.
Indeed, Marines can be good actors. While Harrell is no R. Lee Ermey yet, he has the charisma. But the links between thespians and grunts get even tighter. According to program notes, Harrell has also led the rest of the cast in a mini boot camp. ReEntry has received high marks and much feedback at several Marine bases. Sanchez and Ackerman have put in research time at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. And, in an interesting twist, the play is supported in part by Northrop Grumman—the world’s fourth largest defense contractor—and the National Endowment for the Arts.
ReEntry is, in fact, embedded theater. And it comes with the ups and downs of embedded journalism. It offers you direct access to interviews culled from more than 1,000 actual participants in the current war on terror, including combatants and their families. In an 85-minute play you get unfiltered accounts of what it’s like to return to the United States after serving abroad in combat. It also hopelessly scrambles the relationships between playwrights, actors, subjects, and characters in a production that is an awkward mix of The Vagina Monologues and Full Metal Jacket.
First, though, the upside: ReEntry lets you hear about the war directly from those who fight it. Ackerman and Sanchez (who is also the director) have culled the script from stories collected in their interviews, which get delivered without annoying bravura touch-ups or plot devices. After almost a decade of fighting an invisible enemy at the behest of a nation not known for its attention span, the warrior class has itself become invisible. The story of the two wars is still a work in progress, and the audience is witness to veterans genuinely trying to figure out how their own experiences and traumas fit into the weird, politically poisonous country to which they return.
One CO recalls his experience of walking down a highway right by a dying Iraqi boy. A wounded vet comes back to the country and finds himself getting ready to hammer a bunch of 13-year-old skate punks—but he abstains. A Marine wife talks about how she wakes up her husband only to narrowly escape strangulation. It’s refreshing to hear stories like that told without forcing any exchanges or crisis. Sanchez and Ackerman provide that opportunity.
But like embedded journalism, embedded theater has its problems. First, long contact with the Marines has only increased the playwrights’ respect for fighting men. That’s great, but it doesn’t excuse a production that is weighed down by a lugubrious sense of purpose and self-importance as it salutes the troops. It’s clear that the playwrights—and Center Stage—consider this production more than a play: It’s a chance for civilians and soldiers to break the barriers between them. ReEntry, which avoids relationships and smooths out tensions, isn’t really a play in the first place.
So is that a problem? The actors look frozen somewhere in the process of developing characters—as if they’re conscious of themselves, and the stage, as a weak link in this experience of reality. Harrell anchors the play with an effective performance as the CO, but the script has the annoying tendency to turn him into a motivational speaker. (Interestingly, motivational speaking is actually on Harrell’s résumé, along with a stint as a male stripper.) Playing the parts of younger Marines Charlie and the blinded Tommy, Bobby Moreno injects a mixture of charm and cluelessness; unfortunately, Moreno has little opportunity to play off other characters. PJ Sosko, as Charlie’s older brother and a wounded veteran, delivers some effective flashes of post-traumatic stress, but doesn’t really have the chance to learn about the characters he plays. Sheila Tapia (Charlie’s sister, Liz, and a Marine wife) and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris (Charlie’s mom/Maria) are forced to squeeze pathos out of isolated lines that put them in the awkward positions of playing real-life family members being interviewed by playwrights who are also veterans’ sisters.
Sanchez writes in her introduction that she and Ackerman spent three years visiting Marine veterans and their families, and that the hardest part was deciding which stories to tell. The anecdotes they go with are plucked out like prize butterflies and pinned for display. The “theater” part, meanwhile—you know, where actors are supposed to use the stage to interact with one another—appears to have been inserted as an awkward afterthought. The production is glued together with a curious mix of a metallic soundtrack (think The Hurt Locker), cinematic clichés (slow-motion marches), and blocking that leaves characters shuffling around without ever really moving anywhere.
Given our country’s chaotic cultural landscape, it’s understandable why Ackerman and Sanchez regard the military as a sanctuary of integrity, professionalism, and real-life drama. As the Northrop Grumman ad announces in the full-page, flag-waving spread at the back of the program, here’s to the heroes. But here’s to the actors, too, who are trained as artists to make connections by developing tensions, not facilitating discussions. ReEntry, for all its virtues, leaves us wondering why we aren’t just talking to the heroes themselves, buying them drinks, and listening to their stories—instead of hanging around a cabaret-theater. Given that the post-show discussions with a changing bill of actual veterans, family members, and experts is presented as “Act Two” of the evening, one suspects that Center Stage was nagged by the same question. ?