On Friday night I was a pretty blank slate. Yeah, I’d read more than my share of military history, and had a general sense of where the armed forces had triumphed and failed over the years. But when I walked into the Spencer Theatre for KC Rep’s production of Another American Asking and Telling, all I really possessed was a vague sense that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was another red tape snafu. A game of Twister gone horribly awry and it was fixed so it was over, right?
Thanks to Marc Wolf, I know better now.
That night I met Miriam Ben-Shalom, a decorated drill sergeant, and the daughter of a WWII veteran, who wanted nothing more than to serve her country. An offhand comment led to a commander asking her one question. Picture it suspended, the answer hanging in the air between the work that defines you and public humiliation: “Sergeant Ben-Shalom, are you a homosexual?”
There was a reason they said Don’t Tell.
In 1976 Miriam Ben-Shalom was discharged by the Army she loved. And how did she repay this betrayal? By spending the next 35 years trying to get back in. She stands on stage, piercing eyes, rigid with anger, with sorrow, with shame. Except it wasn’t her. It was Marc Wolf, asking and telling like somebody’s life depended on it.
We saw people on both sides of the issue, portrayed by an actor who so thoroughly inhabits each soldier, that you would swear there was trickery involved. Every time he did it, moving seamlessly from a chain-smoking, eye rolling WWII era Southern nurse who did not check the box marked Homosexual because, “That was for, prostitutes or something and I wasn’t that,” to a hyperactive, medal heavy Colonel who commented and twitched his way through his experience with a squadron of one gay man and ten sociopaths, leading him to declare, “and that’s why gays don’t belong in the Army.” Interestingly, I recognized this soldier the moment Wolf opened his mouth—an outspoken and often lonely critic of the Vietnam war. He’d gotten so many big things right.
And yet, are we not merely a compilation of our own experiences, unless we hear the lives of others? Will we allow ourselves to feel the grief of a mother whose child arrives in a closed coffin, thanks to his brothers in arms; the loss to an officer of all he held dear, his children casualties in the rubble; truth, the gift that emerged from a very public hell.
Each word spoken is verbatim from the interviews Wolf spent three years and all of his savings, gathering. The words hang around your neck for hours, hilarity and tragedy weaving their weighty garland. But the performance is a tour de force; an acting master class that is not to be missed.
Plays like this are the reason we have theatre.
Another American Asking and Telling at KC Rep January 14-February 6, 2011 http://tickets.kcrep.org/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=4179