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DO TELL: KC Rep’s one-man show is a thought-provoking, at times wrenching hit

Marc Wolf’s one-man play Another American: Asking and Telling is not just about the American military’s bizarre and soon-to-be-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, it addresses the whole history of the armed forces’ harsh and often cruel treatment of gays and lesbians. Therefore the recent repeal of the policy – an event that could easily have kicked the legs out from under a play edged with righteous indignation about it – has in some ways made it more relevant than ever. The play, which opened on January the 21st at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre, is a potent reminder of the military’s existence outside of Constitutional principles, and of the dangers that lurk in that continued legacy.

It is also a virtuosic vehicle for Marc, who does not just read the transcripts he’s compiled from 200 interviews from all sides of the issue but actually assumes the roles of 18 real-life characters from his interviews – changing his voice, stance and mannerisms for each to such a degree that at times you’re convinced he is “channeling” the real person. It is a brilliant tour de force not to be missed by any adult who cares about the civil rights of all who serve our country. (Language and content are at times quite strong; the Rep has recommended the play for “high school and up.” These are, after all, the words of real soldiers.)

Represented are men and women, straights and gays, anti- and pro-“Don’t Ask.” There are officers and enlisted men, and veterans of just about every conflict dating back to World War II. Marc delivers convincing Southern drawls, Latino twangs, Bronx barks, feminine lilts, butch staccatos. The stage is spare: an American flag, a table and chair, a glass of water, a beer bottle, a tape recorder, and in Act 2, a microphone on a stand. A greyish drop creates a neutral look that focuses the attention entirely on Marc. Sound effects such as a passing train lend verisimilitude: You had the feeling that’s exactly what was on the original tape. The original direction, by Joe Mantello, is neatly minimalist and unobtrusive.

The action begins with the taped voice of a woman who, before she will speak, asks if Marc is a member of the military, the police, the CIA or the FBI. Assured that he is not, she agrees to participate. Marc then segues directly into his first “role.” Half-sitting on the table and pretending to drive a car – as if giving the interviewer a tour of his military base while he tells his story – he plays an amiable guy whose psycho ex-boyfriend has threatened to “out” him to his superiors. The young man’s horror at the potential consequences lends a quick, efficient glimpse into the misery caused by forcing gay soldiers to hide their identities.

Some of the characters are more sharply etched than others. We barely get a glimpse – though it’s a whimsical glimpse – of the fellow who feels the policy has doomed him to “a life of celibacy” at the end of which he will die “blind and buried with hairy palms.” Or of the several straight men who believe the presence of a gay soldier undermines the manly, fighting spirit necessary to win wars. Or of the woman who declares that the military “used to be a lesbian social club before, because they kept the straight women out.” Or of the Caribbean native whose Christian faith “prevents him” from serving side-by-side with gays. Or of Ed Modesto, whose court-martial carried a silver lining: The new honesty with his family actually improved his relationship with his three children.

Some have simple, unpreachy points to convey. One anonymous figure – who stands in silhouette to mask his identity – reasonably argues that it’s a mistake to spend so much time talking about “Don’t Ask” while we “forget to send bullets to Kosovo.” He thinks we should “focus on something more relevant.” A shell-shocked, flamboyant gay Vietnam vet, called “Mary Alice” by his platoon, tells how he survived the war by “laughing and crying” and encouraging others to do so. One swaggering tough-guy keeps “accidentally” calling himself gay: “I mean, straight! Freudian slip!” as he himself declares.

A handful of the characters we get quite close to, and feel their pain deeply. One solder referred to as Edward Patrick Clayton, Jr., recounts a grueling tale of being sexually assaulted while in “protective custody,” as guards looked the other way; later he learns the attack has infected him with HIV, causing his father essentially to disown him. Most moving of all is the testimony ofDorothy Hajdys- Holman, whose gay son, navy officer Allen Schindler, was beaten into such oblivion by his own shipmates that he was identifiable only by his tattoos. Slumped in a chair and speaking with a mixture of grief, bitterness and defiance, “Dorothy” – who in real life became an anti-“Don’t Ask” activist after her son’s death – showed us the extremes to which the policy can lead. Hatred, violence, murder.

Yes, Another American has a point of view: It does not shy away from its critique of “Don’t Ask.” It even mocks Prof. Charles Moskos, the Northwestern University sociologist who helped craft the policy. He appears as a hypocritical (and, it is suggested, perhaps closeted) crank who compares the policy to a Peeping Tom you don’t know about. “If I don’t know about it, no problem. So don’t tell me.” But in the end Another American remains true to its muse, and it adds up to a remarkable evening of theater.

Another American runs through February the 6th. For tickets call the Kansas City Repertory Theatre box office at 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor of The Independent, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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