Corrections or additions?

This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 24,

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

Review: `Another American’

Take the term "gay pride" and place it beside

"military pride" and the result is an explosive concoction:

men and women trained to conform to a military culture which, once

it is turned against them, resembles nothing so much as a rodent

consuming its own offspring.

The founding fathers recognized early that democracy can never work

without an educated electorate. And the subject of homosexuals serving

in the armed forces has been a topic of national debate at least since

Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign of 1992. Yet what did we

— the so-called "debaters" — really know?

Marc Wolf’s one-man play, "Another American: Asking and

Telling,"

is an informative and frightening tale for those of us who would form

opinions based on fragmentary facts that seem to characterize our

media-driven Information Age. This carefully constructed series of

first-person narratives, collected from American service men and women

of various ages and sexual orientations, tells us more about the

perils

of current government policies than we probably want to know. Wolf’s

McCarter Theater Second Stage performances continue through Sunday,

January 28.

In the heat of the ideological wars of the 1990s, the Clinton

administration’s

"Don’t ask, Don’t tell" policy was introduced to replace the

kind of "gentlemen’s agreement" about sexual practices that

has generally guided military forces throughout the world and

throughout

history. That a single-sex force is going to attract homosexuals is

a given; so is the fact that homosexuals have proved themselves

dedicated and courageous members of the military.

Playwright-actor Wolf, simply clad in black T-shirt and chinos, is

so adept at adopting the personae of his interviewees, be they gay

or straight, young or old, male or female, that he is the only

character we never meet. And that’s the beauty of his work. His 18

informants, on the other hand, several of whom and re-introduced at

key moments over the course of the play’s two-acts, become, as the

show progresses, familiar acquaintances.

We do "meet" Wolf once, in a short (presumably true-life)

audio tape segment that opens the play. We hear Wolf’s rather halting

and self-conscious voice beginning an interview which is quickly

dominated by the subject’s aggressive questions: "Do you work for

the government? Are you a police officer? Military? FBI or CIA?,"

a woman’s voice asks. No, Wolf replies. "All right, you’re fine

then."

As the play develops, Wolf’s little recorder becomes a character in

its own right. One informant after another directs his or her

anguished remarks to the palm-sized black box as if it bore

responsibility to carry their message to the nation.

But Wolf as player is anything but halting and self-conscious. As

directed by Joe Mantello, Wolf’s performance is powerful and seamless;

with a well-wrought structure to the series of stories that build

over two acts. Choreographic nuances identify his characters and make

us believe we’re in their presence.

Although parallels can be drawn to the work of Anna Deavere Smith,

I was struck by Wolf’s success in obtaining interviews with so many

key players in this ongoing national nightmare. These include Miriam

Ben Shalom, a former U.S. Army drill sergeant and lesbian who was

the first woman to fight her discharge in the courts. Although she

eventually won her right to reinstatement, she was permanently ousted

in 1990. Her civil rights are now protected, we assume, in her job as

a public school teacher.

Probably the most harrowing story is told by the mother

of Allen Schindler, murdered by his own shipmates. As portrayed by

Wolf, this working-class mother simply aches for her beloved son.

So brutal was his murder that when the Navy returned his battered

body, the family had to identify it through his tattoos, including

an emblem of the USS Midway, "the ship he loved."

Also contributing to the mix of voices is Professor Charles Moskos,

the man who first proposed the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.

Still holding to his concept with unwavering pride, he calls it his

"divine inspiration." The irony here is that the audience

has already seen, all too clearly, a painful trail of victims —

dead, emotionally disturbed, or disgraced.

Among the play’s most vividly drawn characters are an older lesbian

couple, Hannah and Anna Mae, whose military service began in the

1960s. Wolf brilliantly captures the presence of both women, seated

side by side, sharing the interview. If there’s any element of comic

relief to be found here, it’s in this weatherbeaten couple who have

been together since before it occurred to either one that their sexual

preference could be described or condemned by a single word: lesbian.

Another woman, a veteran lawyer, provides a welcome note of comic

relief when she waxes nostalgic about the days when the armed forces

were "virtually a lesbian social club." Until the ’70s, she

explains, you couldn’t be married or pregnant and stay in the military

— either one would get you thrown out. So is it any wonder that

the military found itself asking, "Where did all these dykes come

from?"

The play includes the voices of at least two men and women who oppose

gays serving in the military, but this vocal element of the

"national debate" could have been stronger. One man testifies

that he joined the military because he understood homosexuals were not

allowed to serve; another commander tells how homosexual activities

were disruptive to the cohesion of his fighting unit.

Wolf, who has no military experience of his own and considers himself

gay, builds on this down-to-earth testimony to reveal the confusion

of speech and conduct that is at the root of the policy’s

contradictions. One man’s story reveals a fatal confusion between

homosexuals and pedophiles. And we meet real citizens who have been

condemned to dishonorable discharges, courts martial, and suicides by

what appear to be politically-driven policies.

"Another American" closes on a brave yet poignant note with

a collage of photo portraits of the veterans and active duty men and

women who have stated their case through the person of Marc Wolf.

We recognize them as patriots.

— Nicole Plett

Another American: Asking and Telling , McCarter Theater,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $20. A discussion follows the

performance on Wednesday, January 24, at 8 p.m. Performances

continue through Sunday, January 28.


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