Sunday, March 25, 2012

Court-Martial at Fort Devens

Court-Martial at Fort Devens, by Jeffrey Sweet, tells the true story of a group of African-American women who joined the women's army corps during World War II to be trained as medical assistants, only to be assigned to washing floors and toilets due to a white officer;s racism. The women went on strike; most returned to work when ordered. Two, however, decided to take their chances with a court-martial. (I don't know how much theatrical liberty Sweet took with the story; I do know that the version he tells is convincing.)

Nambi E. Kelley
Photo: Gerry Goodstein
Sweet tells the story efficiently and cleanly, ably juggling the events and characters. Mary Beth Easley keeps the machine of the play moving smoothly, provides focus where focus should be, and guides the performers into an impressive ensemble.

The play shows us many brands of heroism. Ginny (beautifully played by Nambi E. Kelley) is a no-nonsense women who cannot back down from what she believes. She's genuinely frightened but moves forward anyway. In contrast, Johnnie Mae (the charming Eboni Witcher) doesn't frighten easily--Ginny describes her as someone who would jump into a pool without checking if there's any water--but she is fully aware of the risk she is taking. The two female lieutenants, Lawson, white (Emma O'Donnell), and Stoney, black (Gillian Glasco), display the heroism of self-control, of putting up with mistreatment now to achieve important goals later. Both O'Donnell and Glasco are superb, subtly revealing the three-dimensional women beneath the discipline and repressed anger.

Watching Court-Martial at Fort Devens is frequently painful and infuriating, and it stays with you. Since seeing it, I've been thinking about the myth of post-racial America. I've been thinking of how far we've come, with a largely well-integrated military. I've been thinking of how far we still have to go, with the Trayvon Martin tragedy being only the most recent proof that America is far from post-racial. I've been thinking of my parent's neighbor, who is incensed at the very idea of a black president. I've been thinking about who the heroes are, and who the villains.

Court-Martial at Fort Devens tells an important story, and the pain of watching it is well-mitigated by the pleasure of the writing, direction, and performances. It's only running through April 1st. If you are interested in serious theatre, it's a must-see.

(press ticket; first row)

No comments: