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Theater of War

Two arts events connect audiences to real-life combat experiences.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012
Howard Korn Photo
Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp in Theater of War

A dramatic reading from two Greek tragedies and an art gallery talk inspired by an exhibit about Negro League baseball—you'd think these two events have little or nothing to do with each other, but according to the head of the organization sponsoring both of them, there's a strong connecting thread.

Rob Wilson is executive director of the Veterans Education Project, a Valley-based group that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. From its beginnings in the wake of Vietnam, the core mission has been, as Wilson puts it, "to engage and educate audiences about the realities and human costs of war." VEP arranges for veterans, from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan, to share their personal stories of military service and combat with civilian audiences in order to "better understand the realities of war, as well as the challenges soldiers may face when they come home from a combat tour."

Recently, the group has been collaborating with arts-based organizations around common themes. Which is where next week's seemingly unrelated events connect: veterans' histories framed by an artistic presentation.

"Double Victory: Negro League Baseball, the Segregated Army and the Struggle to End Segregation," next Sunday at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, relates to the museum's current exhibit, We Are The Ship, a beautifully rendered cycle of paintings by Kadir Nelson depicting scenes and iconic players from the Negro Leagues in the era before baseball was integrated. One of the speakers is Raymond Elliott, whose experience in the segregated Army Air Corps in World War II has surprising parallels to Jackie Robinson's career in the military as well as baseball.

Theater of War, coming to Deerfield Academy on May 12, is a travelling program of readings from Sophocles' two great war dramas, Ajax and Philoctetes. It's a production of the social-impact theater Outside the Wire, which uses drama to engage audiences in pressing political and social issues. The reading, performed by professional actors, is followed by an audience discussion with veterans, active-duty soldiers and professionals involved in post-deployment services.

Both programs, says Wilson, "use the artwork, whether it's about baseball or the Trojan War, to look at some of the same issues the artwork is exploring. The artwork and the veterans' stories combined can be a real catalyst for bringing the audience into the issues and help them look at them in a new way, and also to think and talk about them with people who were directly involved."

In the case of "Double Victory," the whites-only Major Leagues and the largely African-American shadow leagues—considered a second-class arena but fielding some of the greatest players the game has ever seen—were echoed in the Jim Crow military of the Second World War. Raymond Elliott served in the Pacific in an all-black unit of the Army Air Corps deployed to build airstrips during the island-to-island campaign against Japan. During and after his service he was active in the "Double Victory" campaign to win the war abroad and equal rights at home.

During basic training, Elliott was threatened by a white mob after refusing to stand in the gutter at a Mississippi bus stop. That experience paralleled a little-known episode in the life of Jackie Robinson, who also served in the segregated Army and was court-martialed in 1944 while stationed in Texas after refusing to move to the back of a bus. Three years later, of course, Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League baseball, while Elliott went on to become a civil rights activist. He's now president of the Pioneer Valley NAACP and a frequent speaker on VEP's circuit. Also appearing in the Carle Museum event are Lee Hines, Jr., a Vietnam-era Air Force pilot, and baseball historian Doron Goldman, who will give a gallery tour and talk on the Negro Leagues art exhibit before the "Double Victory" program.

While that program connects the history of segregation in baseball and the military, Theater of War finds timeless connections between present-day conflicts and the physical and psychological wounds suffered by bronze-age warriors. Both Ajax, a Greek general in the Trojan War who kills himself after going mad in the aftermath of battle, and Philoctetes, who suffers a festering wound that can't be healed, represent the post-traumatic ordeals endured by many of today's soldiers.

The reading is produced by Outside the Wire, a New York-based company that employs classic theater works to illuminate and stimulate discussion on such issues as addiction treatment (with scenes from Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night), prison reform (Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound) and in Theater of War, combat-related psychological injury viewed through the lens of Sophocles' wartime tragedies. The cast for the Deerfield presentation had not been announced at press time, but previous performances have featured high-profile stage and screen actors including David Strathairn, Gloria Reuben, Amy Ryan and Paul Giamatti.

The dramatic readings, performed in military and well as civilian venues, lead into audience dialogues involving the various stakeholders in the issue, including soldiers' families, PTSD specialists, community members and combat veterans. The Deerfield panel includes a clinical social worker, two Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and a Deerfield Academy student from a military family.

The event is co-coordinated with VEP by Sam Savage, who teaches classics at the school and has structured a student seminar around Theater of War's ancient texts and ageless themes. He finds in the program both "a deep understanding of classics and classical civilization and, on the other hand, some fundamental truths about humanity and about war and about deployment and the effect on individuals and their families. What better way to bring the students out of the school's intellectual environment and into some real-world issues that are very, very timely?"

Much of the work VEP has done over the years involves bringing veterans into schools to give students, some of whom may be considering enlisting, a reality check on the facts of war. Both of next week's events, though, arise from the organization's increasing involvement with military families. The impetus, Wilson says, was the desire of Kevin and Joyce Lucey, whose son Jeffrey, a Marine, committed suicide after returning from Iraq, to share their story with others. "Just as we had found that what the veterans were doing in sharing their stories was an incredibly supportive and therapeutic thing for them, we started seeing that the mothers and fathers and partners of men and women who were serving also wanted to understand what their loved ones were going through and wanted to support each other."

An initial support group, Military Families Connect, has grown into a wider support network, "providing understanding as well as support," Wilson says. "I hear a lot of family members say, 'My son or my daughter just doesn't want to talk about it or doesn't know how to talk about it.' This performance and discussion enables people to talk about it. It's an opportunity to hear from people who have been there, who can talk about what it's like and help them understand it better."

"Double Victory": May 6, 3 p.m., free with museum admission ($9 adults, $6 children under 18), Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, (413) 658-1100, carlemuseum.org, or vetsed.org.

Theater of War: May 12, 7 p.m., free, Garonzik Auditorium, Deerfield Academy, 7 Boyden Lane, Deerfield, vetsed.org.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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