History Explodes in World War I and the Middle East at New York Theater Festival

Culture Watch


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 bchadwick@njcu.edu.

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St.
New York, NY

By Bruce Chadwick

(The East to Edinburgh theater festival, which features plays bound for the annual summer Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, includes several history plays. Here are reviews of two of them.)

Captain Ferguson’s School for Balloon Warfare

There is a warm and wonderful bounce to the step of Captain Ferguson, head of the brand new Balloon Warfare School in the U.S. Army in World War I, located in Omaha, Nebraska. Ferguson is training hundreds of men to service and fly huge hot hydrogen-filled balloons that they will use to observe the enemy in the battlefields of Europe and, he hopes, bomb them to smithereens.

The peppy Ferguson is the star of Captain Ferguson’s School for Balloon Warfare, a one-man show, playing in New York through July 29. With wide eyes and a wider smile, dressed in a spiffy World War I-era uniform, he uses the audience as part of his training group, soliciting opinions from them and even getting them to help him work signal flags (I worked two of them and, I must say, I think I did pretty well). He pulls you into the play with this method and uses aids to make you think this is not just a one-man show. Powerful forces are three faceless officers who appear on a screen and talk to Ferguson and the audience. There is also constant chatter from another soldier on the other end of headset. Ferguson uses plenty of still photos on a large screen to show drawings of the balloons, photos of men exercising and clouds and blinking stars in the sky, His balloon corps, an army first, comes along nicely and sails off to France, where they are asked to work as observers , telling the allied command where the Germans are located and what their strength is. Captain Ferguson, who has dreamed of using his balloons as bombers for years, wants more action and constantly tries to get the army brass to let him use balloons as bombers.

The play, well written by Isaac Rathbone, succeeds because of the comic and tragic skills of actor David Nelson, who plays Ferguson gallantly. He laughs, frowns, encourages, discourages. He pulls you into his confidence and keeps trying to convince you, and the army, that he is right. The army generals disagree and remind everybody that airplanes could the job of balloons better, and planes can escape enemy fire. Balloons cannot. They are just huge targets that can be shot down rather easily.

Ferguson just does not understand the army’s objections and carries on for over an hour, always trying to get the brass to let him break new ground and establish his own balloon bombing squadron that he is sure can end World War I, and right away.

The play is very funny and moves along at a very comic level until the last fifteen minutes or so, when the school for balloon warfare gets ready for its war.

The show is directed smartly by Philip Emeott, who moves Nelson about the stage with ease, utilizing all of his varied props. The photos and drawings shown on the screen are wonderful and help to give the captain a big, wide classroom for his school.

The play is based on the true story of World War I American balloon aviator Captain Charles deForest Chandler, head of the Air Service balloon group in the conflict. He was in charge of putting up and maintaining the safety of observation balloons, manned by two aviators that reported on the enemy. They were protected by anti-aircraft gun batteries on the ground and planes that flew around them to shoot down enemy aircraft targeting them. Flyers from all sides tried to shoot down the balloons that were given the same value as planes shot down in the “kills” category for the air aces.

This is a balloon trip worth taking and a nice look at the history of World War I.

PRODUCTION: Produces: 59E59 Theaters, Oracle Theater. Costumes: Raquel Zarin; Sound: Andrew Fuccio and Zach Williamson; Lights: Jenifer Rathbone; Production Design: Philip Emeott and Chris Kateff; Sets: Bradleyville Creative Industries. The play is directed by Philip Emeott.

I Heart Hamas and Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You

When the play I Heart Hamas and Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You , a one-woman show staged by a young Palestinian to explain why, she thinks, Americans do not understand Palestinians, opens an announcer asks the audience to see the play as if they were Palestinians. That’s hard to do. Could you suddenly be a Brazilian? Nigerian? Japanese?

The ninety-minute show starring Jennifer Jajeh is at times funny and at times sad. It chronicles her life as an American from San Francisco who goes back to her homeland, the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, to live for eighteen months. In America, she constantly moans that when people discover she is a Palestinian they ask her a thousand questions and are suspicious of her right away. Why? She is seen as a Palestinian and not an American. When she lives in Ramallah, where her family came from over 400 years ago, she is seen as an American interloper and not a Palestinian. She lives in two worlds, and does not seem to be comfortable in either.

In act one, Jennifer answers commonly asked questions of Palestinians and poses some herself, such as why Palestine, thousands of years old, today is not even depicted on maps of the Middle East. She has a lot of fun, especially when she talks about raising her Jewish cat, Judah, and fighting with Judah’s original owners, who want the feline to maintain his Jewish heritage.

Act two is more serious and Jennifer talks about being trapped with thousands of others at an Israeli checkpoint, witnessing a suicide bombing and an air force attack on Ramallah. She is poignant and frightened.

The play is an interesting look at a Palestinian growing up in the Middle East and in America. The problem with it is that everybody in the Middle East, in all of its countries, faces problems, not just Palestinians. Israelis have suffered, too. While Palestinians may have been discriminated against, so have Israelis. Jennifer does a weak job in insisting that Palestinians are the lone victims in the overall Middle East conflict.

One weakness of the play, directed by W. Kamau Bell, is that she expects the audience members to all have doctorates in Middle East history. She does not explain anything about what happened there over there since the end of World War II -- the establishment of the Israeli state, the Six-Day war, the development of the Gaza Strip. The name of PLO leader Yasser Arafat is never mentioned in the play. She talks about her family being from Ramallah, but never goes into the history of Ramallah, which is quite colorful, beyond its founding long ago.

Ms. Jajeh has been presenting this play around America for a few years and she should have retooled it. She also needs to do a better job of slowing down the action -- which is frantic -- so she can spotlight certain problems.

And, too, she needs to clearly note that many immigrants from countries that have trouble face similar problems. What would Mexican Americans say about their visit home and the drug cartel violence?

I Heart Hamas is a good show that needs a lot more balance and more comprehensive acting by Ms. Jajeh.

PRODUCTION: Sound/Lighting: David Hines; Technician: Jacqueline Steager. The play is directed by W. Kamau Bell.

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