COURT-MARTIAL AT FORT DEVINSBy Jeffrey Sweet
African American Repertory Theater
Director – Willie Minor
Set Designer – Prudence Jones
Props Design – Regina Washington & Angela Washington
Lighting Designer – Kolby Clark
Sound Design – Bear Hamilton
Costume Design – Regina Washington
Stage Manager – Lisiana Michelle
Ginny Boyd – Kyndra Mack
Johnnie Mae – Michelle Mays
Gertrude/Ruby – Sydney Sherow Celestin
Victoria Lawson/Eleanor Roosevelt/White Trainee – Mary-Margaret Pyeatt
Tenola Stoney – Regina Washington
Miles/Kimball/Edwards/McCarthy – Jordan Willis
Julian Rainey – Artist Thornton, Jr.
Ginny’s Father/Steele/Hughes – Selmore Haines III
Curtis – Vandous E Stripling II
Reviewed Performance: 2/20/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
However, racism lived. It was the era of Jim Crow and there were strong voices supporting the ideals, if not the goals, of the Southern states. Some in high authority were openly racist. Such was the case of Colonel Kimball, commander of the Fort Devens medical facility near Boston. In late 1944, a contingent of young black women recruits was stationed there to become medical technicians, but the base commander decided to revert them to orderlies in order to restrict them from white soldiers. He was a misogynist as well as a racist and so he was doubly prejudiced against what the young black women had been promised. This caused an uprising, which ended in a court-martial.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens is a dramatic retelling of that historical story which took the cause of racial and female mistreatment to the highest levels of the Army. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, who had championed the program to put more black female soldiers into the war effort, had to help the convicted recruits. This play, by Jeffrey Sweet, is playing at African American Repertory Theatre at the KD Studio Theatre.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens is an impressionistic retelling of a historical story. Not all the facts are recreated exactly. It doesn’t have the court room drama of modern crime stories. But Jeffrey Sweet interleaves his basic story line with some dramatic, fictitious flashbacks to build a possible backstory for the real story. None of flashbacks play out fully, but each creates a possible story element to explain the actions of the characters.
The set created by Prudence Jones, along with an extensive prop design by Regina Washington and Angela Washington, used the barest of furniture and props to suggest locations, especially an Army medical unit. Several small platforms created acting areas, including a courtroom, a base brig, housing for recruits, and several other settings. Actors stayed on-stage, sitting in chairs near the back wall while idle, but stepped into the set to play a scene. It might only be a few lines. This allowed Director Willie Minor to keep frequent scene changes moving quickly. The hour and 50-minute play seemed much faster because of this.
Kolby Clark designed lighting to illuminate the acting platforms needed for each scene vignette. A few spots on specific items, such as the flag upstage at the end, designated important focal points. But in general lighting was often dim, which seemed to emphasize the dark nature of this story. Bear Hamilton’s Sound Design was pretty minimal and subtle. There was music, including the likes of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Judy Garland. I didn’t hear sound effects.
Costumes were vintage 1945. Regina Washington used fairly accurate military uniforms. A minister wore a black-gray suit. Mrs. Roosevelt was recognized by her pink pillbox hat and a dress coat. A civilian lawyer wore a fine silk suit to present a status as a successful lawyer.
This play had nine actors and seventeen characters, so several actors played numerous roles. Director Willie Minor created quick, smooth transitions between actors playing multiple roles, so there was no delay shifting to a new character. A quick costume change, a little physical body change, a different voice or accent, minor differences made them recognizable as different people.
Jordan Willis played the white male parts, including a Patton-like General Miles, Colonel Kimball, the base commander who was gruff and racist, a young white captain in the motor pool, and McCarthy, the Army’s prosecutor in the court-martial. Willis had to portray the ideal of the Army way of thinking, as well as express racial hatred of the time. Willis did a good job of conveying hate, intimidation and a superior attitude for both General Miles and Colonel Kimball. I suspect Sweet’s text did not offer much chance for Kimball to build a complex backstory, since his role was to be evil. But his Edwards character was positive and encouraging to the young black recruit. He showed that not everyone felt the same way as the Commander. When Willis became McCarthy in the court scene, we saw a more complex character that played his tough role of government prosecutor because he had to, but there was a side of him hinting at reluctance.
Mary-Margaret Pyeatt played the white female characters, including Lt. Victoria Lawson, commander of the hospital unit where the recruits worked. She also played Mrs. Roosevelt and a short cameo as a young white medical trainee. As Lawson, Pyeatt played an officer who believed in the program and respected the young ladies, including the black ones, but was unfortunately caught between them and Colonel Kimball. Pyeatt revealed deep conflict as Lt. Lawson reasoned with her young soldiers with moments of sympathy, but interspersed those with edicts of military authority. As Eleanor Roosevelt, she changed her voice and accent and walked with a different step. In this role Pyeatt showed someone who we could believe supported the cause of the young girls.
Selmore Haines III played several characters that helped frame the story of Ginny Boyd, including Ginny’s father during a flashback before she enlisted, a man in an NAACP office where Ginny’s lawyer got involved, and an Episcopal minister. As Ginny’s father, Haines was a loving father trying to talk his daughter out of enlisting, but who couldn’t fight her dream. As Steele, we saw a side of the NAACP which chose their equality battles carefully at that time, even if it meant hurting some people. As minister Hughes, Haines launched into a sermon where he sang soulful songs of plantation life and lamented that none of them stood up for Ginny when it was needed most. Haines brought home in a few minutes of quintessential black preaching the theme of this play. “What are you prepared to do?” In this minister, we heard that most people did nothing, and he showed the guilt and pain of this failing most.
Vandous Stripling II played Curtis, a young black soldier who returned from the war in Europe as a patient. Stripling showed the story of a young man who also dreamed or fighting for his country, but who was taken out of the war by a senseless act of racial battery before he could fight. This story added the plight of many young male black soldiers who also found discrimination killed their dreams, not so different from the young girls in the hospital wards.
Julian Rainey was the young lawyer from the NAACP who took up the case of Ginny Boyd and Johnnie Mae. Artist Thornton, Jr. looked and sounded the part. Smooth-talking, exceedingly confident, he added swagger to Julian, even as he fought a case that was sure to lose. In his private talk with his clients, we saw Thornton give Julian a bit of cockiness, but in a kind and supportive way. When talking with the Army’s prosecutor, we saw that cockiness turn to threat and bravado. As he questioned witnesses, Thornton became the model lawyer who lays his case out with pointed questions, but uncovers hidden messages. This was especially true as he questioned a young black woman lieutenant.
Two young recruits were co-workers and close friends of Ginny Boyd. They experienced the same racial attacks Ginny did, but reacted differently. Johnnie Mae, played by Michelle Mays, was Ginny’s closest friend who tried to convince her not to fight the inevitable oppression. Mays gave her some bravado when it seemed safe for Johnnie, but shrunk from the heat when things got violent. In the end, Johnnie joins Ginny in her quest, but Mays makes it clear in her emotional struggle that it was a hard decision. Sydney Sherow Celestin played Ruby and Gertrude. I couldn’t tell the difference in them, so the transition was not clear, but Ruby was the one who reacted most physically to the racial attacks and Celestin showed this highly emotional and vulnerable side of racial hatred which affects victims physically, making them, hide, run away, or even try to hurt themselves. It’s a deeply, psychologically damaging thing.
Court Martial at Fort Devens is really the story of two women. Virginia Boyd was the young recruit who decided fighting against lies and discrimination was worth the possibility of punishment. At that time the Articles of War classified rebellion as an offense worthy of death. Her immediate superior, Lt. Tenola Stoney, is a career Army officer in the WACS, having already survived her own racial discrimination to beat the odds. She was sworn to uphold the Army Code and the chain-of-command. So she was caught between immovable forces, a young dreamer, much like herself, and the Army. Boyd experienced the same racism as it was dished out to the young ladies and had to make her own choice. This play is the story of how these two women reacted.
Ginny Boyd was played by Kyndra Mack. Ginny was a young dreamer, ready to take on the world, accomplished already, but wanting more. The Army seemed to offer that, especially with the encouragement of Eleanor Roosevelt. So Mack didn’t have a wide arc to play, as she kept her character on track towards her dream. She did play deep disappointment about how she was treated, horror about what she heard, and disbelief about how the Army blamed her for what she could only think was the right way to act. Mack carried her Ginny through a roller coaster of emotions from her initial dream to the point it came crashing down. Mack turned that disappointment into a cautious determination that carried her through the trial. In Ginny, we saw a suggestion of the ideal way to react to injustice.
Regina Washington had the greater arc to create. In the beginning Stoney’s pride and accomplishment as a new officer with her own command was a proud moment and Washington showed the strength and resolve of an officer ready to take on the world. This too crashed when her commanders turned on her troop of eager recruits and created a seething cauldron in which someone had to react. Lt. Stoney had heard that same racial outburst from Colonel Kimball, but had to walk a tightrope between her career and the feelings she had for the cause of her young girls. She made a choice of ease and comfort, but later regretted it and admitted it openly. In Washington’s arc, we see how most people respond to uncomfortable situations, but we also see someone who finds truth and displays it when it counts most.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens poses questions we still struggle with today. In fact, we’re in the midst of great turmoil over some of these. The expectation to “Do your duty!” is a refrain that rings out and almost always means “Do what you’re told, even if it’s illegal, unethical, or immoral.” The question everyone, who puts on a uniform of the military or law enforcement at any level, or joins an organization that can stretch the laws of humanity in the name of duty, has to ask is, “What am I prepared to do?” “Where will I draw the line between duty and doing what’s right?” At Fort Devens, Ginny Boyd and Johnnie Mae drew their line and chose to fight injustice. In the end, they were exonerated, but only with the help of people in high places. Others were not so lucky. Yet most of us have to answer that question at some time in our life. African American Repertory Theatre has helped us examine these questions and shown how they might be answered by different people. This play is worthy of the time and the examination.
African American Repertory Theatre
Trinity River Arts (KD Studio Theatre), 2600 N. Stemmons Frwy, Suite 180, Dallas, TX 75207
Played through March 6th
Thursday – Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday-Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are Friday and Saturday evenings for $27, Saturday and Sunday matinees for $22; Budget Friendly Thursdays $15.For info and tickets, visit http://www.aareptheater.com or call 972-572-0998.