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Court-Martial at Fort Devens
Based on a true story about the African-American WACs (Women’s’ Army Corps) in World War II, Sweet's drama reveals the actual events that caused two black female soldiers to walk out the door on military orders that smacked of prejudice. Though the play digresses too much, and sometimes gets heavy-handed in its moralizing, it does pack a powerful punch.
First seen at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in February 2007, where some critics compared Court-Martial. . . it to The Caine-Mutiny Court-Martial and Trial at Nuremburg. But suffice it to say, that it carries its own signature and theatrical heft. The play has arrived in New York under the aegis of Woodie King Jr’s New Federal Theatre and the Castillo Theatre.
Sweet has written more than a documentary here. As he traces the events that lead up to the court martial of the black WACs, he examines the deep prejudice in the military during World War II and shows how easily the top brass could change a private’s status to suit his own narrow-mindedness. The officer in charge (Colonel Kimball) here re-categorized the women who joined the military to be nurse trainees, but following their training, as orderlies. This reassigned them to the humiliating duties of cleaning latrines, mopping floors, and doing laundry.
Court Martial at Fort Devens isn’t flawless. The narrative is told simultaneously in the present and through flashbacks, which makes for often confusing transitions. There’s too much narration with performers too often stepping forward to give historical context to episodes. In spite of its talkiness, however, the play manages to capture the essence of this unsettling chapter in the annals of the United States Army.
Of the many memorable scenes are memorable, a flashback at the outset is especially poignant. It has the central character ,Ginny Boyd, attempting to explain to her father why she is leaving her secure job at the United States Treasury to join the military and become a nurse trainee. This domestic scene uncannily foreshadows what’s ahead for Boyd and the other black WACs. Her father, keenly aware that the military is“honeycombed with prejudice,” warns his head-strong daughter about the harsh realities of military life. No matter. His voice, like the prophet Cassandra’s, is prescient but ignored.
While the voice of Ginny’s father is dismissed, the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt rings out with stronger clarity. In a charming vignette at play’s end, the then First Lady (Emma O’Donnell) appears with Julian Rainey, who legally represented Ginny Boyd and Johnnie Mae at the court martial. In a sort of mock Boston Tea Party (Rainy hails from Boston), Mrs. Roosevelt takes responsibility for the women going to prison. She tells Rainey “ I blame myself for creating the WACs, and pushing them to recruit negroes.” She relieves her guilt glands with a timely phone call to the Secretary of War. Though I don’t want to be a spoiler here, she proves herself to be an iron hand in a velvet glove.
The current production features competent acting. Special praise is due to Nambi E. Kelley's Ginny Boyd. Also excellent are Gillian Glasco as Tenola Stoney and Emma O’Donnell, playing the multiple roles of Victoria Lawson, Mrs. Roosevelt, and the White Trainer. Bill Tatum is strong as Miles and McCarthy, but less forceful as Colonel Kimball. Frank Mayers makes a fine showing as Private Curtis, Mr. Steele, and the Reverend Hughes. As Hughes, he gives a soulful homily that reminds us that our founding fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the members of the Boston Tea Party — had pioneer spirits and practiced resistance against injustice. if that sounds over the top, it’s an inevitable fault of this earnest play.
As directed by Mary Beth Easley, this drama is a good pick for Women’s History Month. Sweet’s protagonists aren’t as well-known as the iconic Rosa Parks, but this 90-minute drama shows them to be cut from the same cloth.
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