Saturday, April 01, 2006

Naomi Wallace: In the Heart of America

Director: Jeff Hall-Flavin with Outward Spiral Theater Company
Loring Playhouse, Minneapolis, MN (2001)

This experimental play is all over the map on political issues involving the military. It covers Vietnam retrospectively and, mainly, the (First) Persian Gulf War in 1991. The playwright explores a number of issues such as friendly fire deaths, civilian casualties, the motives for war, the problems of Palestinians caused by Israeli settlements, and homosexuality in the military, by manipulating the characters in a non-linear fashion.

The centerpiece of the story is the buddy relationship between Remzi Saboura (David Regelmann) and Craver Perry (Nick Condon). Remzi is a Palestinian American who seems to have grown up in America and understands the Isreal-Palestinian problem from a distance. His handicapped sister, Fairous (Aamera Siddiqui) longs for a healthy sibling relationship with him and wants him to be closer to his Palestinian roots. Craver comes from the coal country in Appalachia, Eastern Kentucky, specifically. The two soldiers bond emotionally in a way typically expected in a military unit, but their emotional relationship seamlessly blends into intimacy and frank homoeroticism, without ever being explicitly sexual. This is true emotional bonding and the deepest levels, with great tenderness and affection, growing throughout the play. It just goes barely over the line of what would violate the military anti-gay policy, but, remember, in 1991 Bill Clinton had yet to be elected and “don’t ask, don’t tell” had yet to be debated and to come about. The “Old Policy” (an absolute ban) was theoretically in place, although when deployed soldiers were needed and rarely discharged (it was often difficult to get discharged for homosexuality, since the military would assume that the motive was to avoid deployment). What seems clear, though, is that this kind of deep emotional bonding is necessary for men to fight together, and it is hard to believe that either character would disrupt a deployed unit even when known to be gay.

There is also a Green Beret ghost, Boxler (Galway McCollough), who (along with Lue, played by Katie Leo) taunts the men, by bringing back the issue of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War.

The strongest performance in the play is David Regelmann, whose wiry charisma seems eager to overcome all conflicts over ethnic identity and sexual orientation, and argue ultimately for individualism, if only he did not come to a tragic end, that constantly tugs the play forward right to the last moments. The stagecraft was straightforward, with two enclosed fames (movie proportioned) to show flashbacks and behind-the-scenes actions.

Because this play covers so much sharp-edged material in a compact script, it sounds like tempting material for independent film. How could a screenwriter unwind this material into a three-act format? Perhaps the Vietnam material is shown as an “Act 1,” with the rest the film showing the growing relationship between the two soldiers with the backdrop of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, but then one has to work in the two Vietnam-era characters. There would have to be the issue of Remzi reconciling his Palestinian heritage and visiting the West Bank. Perhaps an ending could show Craver attending the 1993 March on Washington and dealing with the debate over the military ban. This is tremendously promising material, enough to make me slurp; but drawing it together as a linear story that convinces one as a real film plot still sounds like a screenwriting challenge (as an adaptation). But it ought to be tried. Of course it would take $$$, maybe about 15 million to make (assuming on-location shoots if the areas involved could become politically stable after Gulf War II ends and Saddam and Arafat are gone)-- well, somewhere on the upper end of independent filmmaking, bordering on historical epic film. Yet it brings to mind films like The Quiet American. Maybe a company like Alliance Atlantis would find this material interesting,

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