Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
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
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
politicians, family members of slain servicemen, and academics,
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
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,
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
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,
that his ultimate goal was "to create an evening of entertainment
that also challenges the audience to rethink their views on gays in
"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
at Hackensack Hospital. Although he was in a few musicals while
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
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.
not comfortable saying it as a way that helps define me as a human
Gays in the military was a hot-button issue during Bill Clinton’s
initial run for the presidency in 1992. Although Clinton had the
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
about the country and the stereotypes of who gay people and who
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
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
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
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
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
While society has quite a way to go before it completes this
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
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
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
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
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
— Jack Florek
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Previews begin January 11, and
performances continue, Tuesdays through Sundays, to January 28. $20.
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