When the draft for Vietnam was in full swing, my father volunteered not because he believed in the war or lusted for battle, but because he couldn’t avoid the draft. He knew if he volunteered, he would get a better assignment, and if he survived, his life afterward would be more stable. A risky reason to enlist, but it is also common thinking among women who serve: the desire for training, for education, for opportunity and stability. Much like many women who serve today, his enlistment launched three decades of silence in his family. The first time I remember him mentioning Vietnam was in my late teens. We were in twining lines waiting for flu shots, staying together until we were divided, men to the left, women to the right. He stood just off my shoulder, and as we neared the split, he asked, “Are you squeamish about needles?”
I chuckled. “No, are you?”
To my surprise he gave the smallest shudder and said, as our lines split apart, “I’ve put parts into body bags that you couldn’t even tell were once a person, but for some reason needles still give me the creeps.”
He didn’t speak of his service even as I considered joining myself, except to say that a commission was better than enlistment and that serving as a woman was not easy. Choosing to remain a civilian isn’t something I regret; in fact, it is a luxury for which I am thankful, but it was pressing on my mind as I sat down, Saturday evening in Tucson, Ariz., for the performance of Coming in Hot.
The stageplay is an adaptation of selections from the Kore Press anthology, Powder: Writing by Women in the Military, from Vietnam to Iraq, which collects the work of nineteen women who served in the U.S. military in a variety of roles. Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain, the co-editors, admit that they “went into the project with the idea that this work would contribute to the chorus of opposition to the war in Iraq . . . We saw immediately the necessity of setting aside any bias and agenda.” It was, nonetheless, this agenda, bias, and perspective that made me wonder if the adapted work would be solely anti-war, primarily a piece of activism, especially given that the work was produced by Kore Press and directed by Bowden.
What the audience witnessed was a well-balanced collection of monologues composed into a one-woman show featuring Jeanmarie Simpson (original score by accompanist Vicki Brown on strings and pedals, with recorded voice talents of Donald Paul Stockton and Kaylene Torregrossa). Before I go any further, I would like to applaud Simpson. While her performance wasn’t flawless, she was also presented with a nearly impossible task in portraying 14 distinct characters in 80 minutes, without costume change; she did so successfully — laudably — using her voice, her mannerisms, and her versatility as an actress, but at times the variety of accents necessary to distinguish so many women became less convincing.
It is troubling that the adaption and direction called for Simpson to do so in the first place. The message or point of the play could have been narrowed, refined, or, in the alternative, the number of monologues could have been reduced (19 contributions became 14 characters, and an even greater number of segments given the recurring appearance of Charlotte Brock’s character in Mortuary Affairs). Characters could have been conflated without much loss of narrative effect and without forcing Simpson to stretch to distinguish them; as one audience member said immediately after the performance, “There were too many stories. It was too much, and it didn’t say enough.”
That said, despite missed light cues, despite a few stuttered lines and awkward moments involving her blocking, Simpson brought life to characters within the simplicity of an otherwise stark production. The set consisted only of one chair and one table — more of an operating table, clinical and spare — which was primarily used for the Mortuary Affairs scenes in which Brock’s character stood over it as if looking down on a body. The lighting consisted of only a few overhead fixtures at various angles with the exception of one water effect and one flashlight held by a crew member. What felt strange, to me, was the balance the director struck between the one-woman show format — meant to emphasize character and message — and the use of recorded voice segments to supplement Simpson’s work. In addition, it was confusing that at first the recorded voices were only used for the male voice of a boot camp instructor, then a female voice for the character Simpson was portraying silently on stage, and finally that same female voice switched to a male role. While I don’t agree with one audience member’s assessment that it would have been better to focus on a very small number of stories — four being the number she mentioned — it did feel inconsistent to rely on the one-actor model while supplementing and distracting from her performance in a variety of ways.
The original score by Vicki Brown was a perfect accompaniment to the monologues. Brown used the same themes and structure each time Simpson returned to the recurring character of Charlotte Brock in the mortuary. At other times, her music set the heartbeat of the scene, calling its pace; at every moment, she took the pain and the challenge of Brock’s writing (and Simpson’s portrayal) to a higher level.
These recurring scenes pulled me in the most and made me think — again, as I often have before — of my father’s offhand comment. “I’ve put parts into body bags that you couldn’t even tell were once a person.” Brock says something very similar about “the contents of the bags” that Mortuary Affairs handled, especially in one harrowing scene in which the deceased is little more than “a head, a hand, and an arm.”
What Simpson, Bowden, and Cain attempted to do in the adaptation and performance was no easy task — to tell these stories and to grant these women their individual voices when their silence has been so pervasive. What perhaps made the sections by Brock so powerful was that she, too, was trying to give someone a voice, both herself in the world in which she found herself surrounded, but also the dead who lay upon that table.
Jennifer McStotts is the daughter, niece, and ex-wife of United States Marines, as well as a second-year MFA student in creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Future Anterior, in International Journal of Heritage Studies, and by Preservation Books.