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Reflections of the Heart
"This here is your land. This here is my land. It ain't the same." These are Ghost Henderson's opening words in this forceful biodrama of decorated World War II veteran, Isaac Woodard, an African American who went to war, did his duty and more. Hours after his discharge, Isaac was brutally beaten and blinded by the police. He spent the rest of his life struggling for dignity, human rights and often survival for himself and his family. Isaac Woodard's experiences in 1946 eventually spurred advances in civil rights but only after bitter reminders of society's racial status quo.
The play opens in the early 1950's in a spare Bronx kitchen. Isaac plays the guitar on the street for money. His wife, Rosie, over-worked, and tired, has just put the children to sleep. She is haunted by bills accumulating in a paper bag, loves Isaac but is frustrated by their seemingly hopeless situation. Shortly after Isaac comes home, two detectives (David Wirth and Jonathan Miles) come to the door to interrogate him about a local robbery. Now the struggles of poverty take second place to a fight for justice as Isaac gropes through hazy memories from the past that are colliding with the present.
Ghost Henderson narrates flashbacks to events after the war. 1946 was a time for the sentimental journey of returning soldiers. For African American vets in the South, however, it was a year of renewed lynchings and beatings. The message was clear: Remove your uniforms, military life is over and it's back to life as usual. Heroes or not, African Americans were still second class.
Isaac joined a returning group of veterans boarding a Greyhound bus to reunite with their families in South Carolina. Nearly home, the bus stops at a diner in Batesburg, South Carolina. Because of an earlier minor incident with Isaac, the driver had called the sheriff who now comes to arrest Isaac. Isaac is beaten and taken to jail where he is beaten further and blinded. In critical condition, Isaac is sent to a hospital and later a VA facility for rehabilitation.
His memories are vague, but the encouraging voices of his mother and Henderson, reverberate in his mind, urging him to remain strong. He is confused when a young white lady from the diner who witnessed the beating instigates national support for Isaac from the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, Joe Louis, and Orson Welles. Isaac is skeptical, remaining so throughout the trial whose outcome does not surprise him.
The flashbacks between the present Bronx interrogation and the events of 1946 are filled in by Henderson's narration. In the Bronx jail, Detective Harris cajoles and threatens Isaac, in an effort to break him. At one point Isaac gets the upper hand. In his mind, he hears Henderson's words, "Don't let it change you boy, you hear me? Special. That's what you are. . .you stay that way," shifting the outcome to a surprising conclusion.
Christopher G. Roberts, who lost his own eyesight in 2005, has written and directed a heartfelt account and his portrayal of Isaac Woodard is compelling. The story is told with simplicity, humor and heartbreak although there could be tightening of many scenes, particularly in the diner and in the VA.
As Henderson, Reginald L. Barnes' authoritative performance commands attention. David Wirth portrays a well nuanced "good cop" indicating shifting feelings toward Isaac. Jonathan Miles as his hot-headed partner, Wairing, also delivers sharply-drawn portrayals of secondary characters. As the sheriff, Mark Ellmore, effectively brings to mind a choleric Rumpelstiltskin bully. Unfortunately, various other actors, including Chanel Carroll as Rosie, merely deliver their lines rather than in-depth characterizations.
On a sparse, utilitarian set by Jito Lee, Kayla Globe's lighting design and David Lawson's sound effects are dramatic. The whack of the nightstick, the thud of a pistol set on the table to catch Isaac's attention, the use of mood music with the big bands songs in the diner and Isaac's melancholy strum of a blues guitar. Much of the theatricality is dependent upon the viewer's imagination. The violence is blacked out, even the towels and clothing after the beating are surprisingly blood-free.
Interesting, but not included in this dramatization, are the rippling after effects of this incident. An all-star rally of 31,000 in New York's Lewisohn Stadium, on August 16, 1946 featured Cab Calloway, Orson Welles, Milton Berle, and Billie Holiday. Woody Guthrie sang, "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard." In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman instituted the ban on racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces, despite the objection of senior military officers and in response to numerous incidents against black veterans, most notably Isaac Woodard's case.
Isaac Woodard died in the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital on September 23, 1992 at the age of 73, and was buried with military honors at the Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York.