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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 10,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Marc Wolf: This American Asks and Tells

I guess my biggest problem, if I had to come down

to it all, is it’s something I wish somebody could teach me —

I don’t know how to stop bein’ angry…"

These are the words of Miriam Ben-Shalom, a former U.S. Army drill

sergeant and a lesbian who was discharged in 1980 because of her

sexual

orientation. Although she fought her discharge in the courts, and

eventually won her right to re-enlist in 1987, she was finally, and

permanently, ousted in 1990.

Ben-Shalom is just one of 18 real-life characters portrayed by

actor-writer

Marc Wolf in his bare bones, two-act, one-person play, "Another

American: Asking and Telling" that begins performances at McCarter

Theater’s Second Stage OnStage Thursday, January 11, and runs to

January

28. Wolf’s play sheds light on the personal stories behind the Clinton

administration’s "Don’t ask, Don’t tell" official policy for

the armed forces, which allows gays to serve in the military only

if they keep their sexual orientation a secret.

In a telephone interview from his home in New York City, Wolf explains

his motivation for creating his docu-drama.

"I realized that the `don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy had

effectively

silenced the community of gays and lesbians in the military,"

he says. "The opportunity to break down stereotypes didn’t exist

for them anymore. And when you look at the history of the 20th

century,

I think it’s pretty clear that when you silence a community of people

it creates an opportunity for abuse to happen."

Although Wolf is the "author" of "Another American: Asking

and Telling," the play was not so much written as it was gleaned.

In fact, he did not write a single line of dialogue. Instead, Wolf

spent three years interviewing more than 150 current and former

servicemen,

politicians, family members of slain servicemen, and academics,

gathering

their real-life stories while logging over 400 hours of tape. These

audio tapes were eventually transcribed, edited, and pieced together

to create the first version of the play.

Although "Another American" is based on the reality-based

style of such recent celebrated theatrical offerings as Anna Deavere

Smith’s "Fires in the Mirror," and Eve Ensler’s "Vagina

Monologues," its construction can also be traced further back

to some of the early work of current McCarter Theater artistic

director

Emily Mann. Her 1977 play "Annulla, An Autobiography" was

based on an interview Mann did with a friend’s family that explored

their experiences as Holocaust survivors. For her 1984 play,

"Execution

of Justice," Mann worked from the transcripts of the trial of

Dan White, murderer of gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco

Mayor George Moscone in 1978.

Stressing that he had always intended on creating a play that could

speak to a mainstream audience, Wolf fine-tuned "Another

American"

onstage in front of live audiences. Between the time of its first

workshop production, in January of 1998 (which focused on only five

characters), to its first Off-Broadway run in December of 1999 (which

featured the full composite of 18 characters), Wolf was able to change

and restructure his play as needed by studying what his audiences

did and did not respond to.

"I kept developing it. As I went along I started to get a better

idea of what kept an audience’s attention riveted," he says,

adding

that his ultimate goal was "to create an evening of entertainment

that also challenges the audience to rethink their views on gays in

the military."

"Another American: Asking and Telling," has already been a

success for Wolf, garnering him rave reviews, an Obie Award, as well

as nominations for the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

He is scheduled to spend much of this year performing the play in

Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago. A tour of Australia in 2002 is

also in the works.

Wolf was born and raised in Englewood, where his mother

was a social worker at Headstart and his father worked as an

anesthesiologist

at Hackensack Hospital. Although he was in a few musicals while

attending

high school at Dwight-Englewood School, it wasn’t until he was asked

to do a production of "Godspell" in Littlefield that he found

himself bitten by the acting bug.

"It was funny because, coincidentally, Tom Cruise was in the

production

too," he says with a chuckle. "We were both seniors in high

school. That, of course, was before he was Tom Cruise."

Wolf went on to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where

he presciently majored in both theater and political science. After

graduating in 1984, Wolf spent the next 12 years working as an actor

in New York on the Off-Broadway stage, as well as a serving time on

the television soap opera "Guiding Light."

Wolf, who has no military experience, considers himself gay, although

he still takes note of an attractive woman from time to time. "I’m

comfortable saying I’m gay for political reasons," he says.

"I’m

not comfortable saying it as a way that helps define me as a human

being."

Gays in the military was a hot-button issue during Bill Clinton’s

initial run for the presidency in 1992. Although Clinton had the

temerity

to simply state his favor for lifting the government’s ban on gays

serving in the military, many conservatives, including the chair of

the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, raged against it until Clinton

implemented his "Don’t ask, Don’t tell" compromise policy.

"In ’93 and ’94 the idea of gays in the military had been in the

media a lot. And I thought that it raised a lot of interesting

questions

about the country and the stereotypes of who gay people and who

military

people are," explains Wolf. "When I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s

work in 1996, I thought that it was not only a really brilliant way

to explore a complicated issue, but that it was a way that I could

apply to the issue of gays in the military by being a sort of mask

for people who the government was saying weren’t allowed to speak

for themselves. It was therefore really saying that the rest of the

country wasn’t allowed to know about them."

Wolf recognizes the importance that the opportunity to serve in the

military has for many citizens. "For a lot of people, it’s the

only way to get an education, or the only way to get trained for a

job. Or when you’re 17 or 18 years old, the military can be the only

way to get out of a rural area," he says. "There is a line

being drawn as to who can and who cannot serve."

Although Wolf makes clear which side of the political line he stands

on the issue, in his initial conception of the play he says he vowed

to avoid any hint of having created a propagandistic, agit-prop work

by including the voices of men and women who oppose gays serving in

the military.

As the debate raged, "the military got stereotyped as well,"

says Wolf. "They were seen as a group of bigots who thought gays

were the scum of the earth. I don’t think that’s necessarily true

either. So I set out to get back to the humanity, and get to the

different

stories that support people’s arguments."

He says that listening to these dissenting opinions

contributed to his own education on the issue. "When I went into

it, I didn’t know all the military arguments," says Wolf. "I

knew all the sound bites, but I didn’t know what was really driving

people. I think what I want for this play is for the audience to

question

their preconceptions and knee-jerk reactions — just as I had to

do when I started interviewing people."

The result is that "Another American" is a delicately

constructed

portrait of objective and subjective evidence and thought that draws

a complex portrait of a society in transition. It shows real lives

caught in the shifting gears of an often painful social

transformation.

While society has quite a way to go before it completes this

transformation,

Wolf is confident that things are slowly changing for the better.

He points to the increased visibility of gays in the media and what

he sees as a growing acceptance of gays among young people. The

military,

however, is not yet a part of this transformation. "I think the

military community is attracting a more and more conservative group

going in," Wolf says. "And there seems to be a larger gulf

growing between the civilian and military world."

Although he maintains his belief that gays do have the right to serve

in the military, and that perhaps Clinton’s "Don’t ask, Don’t

tell" policy hurt more than it helped, Wolf is able to muster

a certain amount of compassion for the president’s position.

"It was really hard because he was in a really difficult

position,"

he says. "Having dodged the draft in Vietnam — or whether

he dodged the draft or didn’t dodge the draft, the fact is that he

didn’t serve. So I think he felt that he himself didn’t have the

stature

to stand up to the military. And I think the military was especially

sensitive to him doing things that they weren’t happy about. So I

think it was a bad match. I think he had the right ideals, but he

obviously didn’t have the background to do it."

Wolf would eventually like to bring out a book based on the play,

one that contains more of his interviews. "So many of the stories

that aren’t in the play are just as dramatic, and a lot of the stories

are very funny. When writing a play, you have to cut out a lot of

stuff if you’re losing the forward momentum, so there were a lot of

issues that I just wasn’t able to keep in the play. But I’d like to

bring them out in the book."

Asked how he keeps his one-man performances fresh, Wolf says the

challenge

has surprised even him. "I thought I would have a hard time. But

if I’m ever feeling that it’s not fresh, I have those people’s words

on tape, and I do go back and listen to them. That keeps it very

fresh."

— Jack Florek

Another American: Asking and Telling , McCarter Theater,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Previews begin January 11, and

performances continue, Tuesdays through Sundays, to January 28. $20.

www.mccarter.org


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