Little Known World War II Court-Martial Gets Vibrant New Hearing
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens
543 W. 42d Street
New York, N.Y.
There is something about court-martials that produces great theater and film. Do you remember The Caine Mutiny, A Few Good Men, Breaker Morant, Paths of Glory, Mutiny on the Bounty? The court- martials of Benedict Arnold, Daniel Boone, Jackie Robinson, Billy Mitchell, George Armstrong Custer, Eddie Slovak, Lt. William Calley, the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq?
And, coming soon, the court-martial of Robert Bales for the alleged murder of sixteen civilians in Afghanistan last week.
Court-martials have controversial central characters, good lawyers on both sides, a large panel of judges, media coverage and good drama. The trial takes place in a courtroom where everything is confined to a single chamber. An historic, controversial case makes for a good movie or play.
Now a new court martial, an actual army trial lost in history, has taken its place alongside the better court martial dramas. Court Martial at Fort Devens , that opened last night, is a solid, impressive, yes sir/no sir military drama with superb acting, sharp direction. It resonates with history. It would make a terrific movie.
In the spring of 1944, sixty African American women, all members of a segregated unit of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) in World War II, were sent to Fort Devens, outside of Boston, for training as medical technicians. Upon arrival their assignment was changed to scrubbing floors. Furious, they went on strike and four of them ended up being court martialed. Their crime – insubordination. Their defense was that they were being discriminated against because of sex and race.
The NAACP provided a top Boston lawyer, Julian Rainey, to defend the women (there are just two defendants in the play). An experienced army lawyer represented the government.
The way the case was presented in the play bristles with prejudice. An army colonel, who ran Lovell hospital on the base, where the WACs worked, protested that black women could not be trained as medical techs or treat white soldiers. He quickly re-assigned them to jobs as basically maids with army stripes on their sleeves. They marched out. A general arrived and threatened them; most went back to work. The two who did not were warned that they faced poor outcomes in a court martial, but they insisted on one. The drama picks up there and the court martial half of the play sizzles. The play is one big question that no one ever answered: why did the army segregate African Americans in the war and continually discriminate against them (see the Tuskegee Airmen). As lawyer Rainey wails in the trial, the U.S. was the only allied power in the war that segregated its troops.
Legally, the trial hangs on the issue of insubordination, but morally and ethically, it was about race and sex discrimination.
Playwright Jeffrey Sweeney has done a fine job of taking what could be dry, boring court room testimony and filling it with emotion and angst. There is a roar of racial and sexual anger in his play and it is just as loud now in 2012 as it was back in 1945.
Director Mary Beth Easley did a fine job of staging both halves of the play – the backdrop and the trial, as one seamless unit. She pulled a lot of emotion out of her characters and did a fine job of making the trial one between young, inexperienced African American women and the huge, monolithic U.S. army. Easley presented the trial as one riveting David vs. Goliath story.
She had fine performances from Eboni Witcher as Johnnie Mae, Nambi E. Kelley as Ginny Boyd, Gillian Glasco as Lt. Tenola Stoney, torn between her desire f or advancement as a black officer and her lpyalty to her women, Alia Chapman as Ruby, Evander Duck as lawyer Rainey, Emma O’Donnell as a white woman officer, Frank Mayers as a black minister who delivers a scalding denunciation of racism at the end of the play, and Keona Welch as Gertrude. Kelley and Glasco are particularly good.
Throughout the play, you know how it should end because the women are obviously guilty, but you wonder if, given the racial and sexist nature of the charges, the outcome will be different. And you wonder, again and again, who is the enemy of the WACs here, the U.S. army or the armies of Germany and Japan?
Playwright Sweet did substantial research for his play. He even went to Boston and visited the church of the Rev. Hughes. In the end, in the interests of drama, he used a little literary license, well, a lot of literary license, to write the play.
Historically, there were four defendants: Alice Young (Ginny in the play), Johnnie Mae Murphy (as she is in the play), Mary Green and Anna Morrison. Sweeney cut out the last two because he could not find any information about them. In the play, there is a meeting between lawyer Rainey and Eleanor Roosevelt which probably never took place. Sweet insinuated that a few NAACP figures led the storm of protest that accompanied the trial, but, in fact, it was led by numerous civil rights leaders all over the nation, including New York’s Adam Clayton Powell, and hundreds of ordinary people who wrote letters of protest to the government.
One of the strengths of the play is a conversation between the defendants in which they believe that they can actually be shot, or imprisoned for a long time, if found guilty. In fact, in a case very similar to theirs at Camp Breckinridge, in Kentucky, a year before, black women defendants were let off rather easy by the court martial board.
Sweet admitted all of this in the notes of the play at another theater, explaining that he did so to heighten the drama of the play. He should have included that information. History is history and you can’t retool it to suit your needs. The outcome would have been the same and the audience would have learned more, and been just as appalled, with the inclusion of the extra two defendants and protest references.
Even so, his slight rewriting of history can be forgiven. Sweet has delivered a very good play that makes everyone in the audience cringe. How could the U.S. have done that in World War II? Well, how could the U.S. have done many things in history?
PRODUCTION: Produced by the Castillo Theater and the New Federal Theater. Sets: John Scheffler, Costumes: Ali Turns, Lighting: Shirley Prendergast, Sound: Mark Bruckner. Directed by Mary Beth Easley.
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