Hope At The End of War
I sat down in BAM’s cold and dark Harvey Theatre for BASETRACK LIVE, unsure of what to expect and fervently sneaking looks at my fellow audience members. Instead of trying to find familiar faces in the crowd, I had another motive. En Garde Arts new show, BASETRACK LIVE, has a mission to bring theatre goers and non theatre goers together in a theatre space and I wanted to know how many members of the military actually took advantage of the ticket deal. Would they be triggered by this play? Will this give them a new perspective? Have they already heard and seen this story too much? These were the questions running through my brain as we all settled in.
What I wasn’t prepared for is a shift in my own perspective. The military culture feels removed and unrelatable to me, I don’t have any family in the service and didn’t think I knew anyone until I glanced at my high school class facebook page and remembered that the military was a popular option for getting out of Alaska. My knowledge of the marines comes to me through media and news, it’s mostly negative and I mostly don’t read it. And this makes me the ideal audience member for BASETRACK. The show reveals the epicness of the Afghanistan war through a tight lens, through one story, told by two people, and the portrait of their marriage in war time.
BASETRACK LIVE comes from the Basetrack Project, a social media site where photographers embedded in the 1st Battalion/8th Marines posted photos and videos of the marines for their families back home. The website was able to provide instant check ins for families and reveals the new communication in war. BASETRACK LIVE takes one story, of AJ and Melissa Czubai and interplays their live and skype narrative with original interviews, videos and photographs that color this world. This couple is constantly separated, by oceans, screens and the inability to reconnect when AJ unexpectedly returns after being shot. This couple’s story isn’t unique, they are joined with a chorus of video interviews of marines and their wives, each contributing their own story into a collage of what it means to be a military family and how they all try to return to “normal” after deployment and re-deployment (and redeployment). Everything about AJ and Melissa feels uncomfortably stereotypical, from how he got into the marines, to their youth, to the painful realization that while AJ never mentions his wife while he’s in Afghanistan, Melissa only talks about him and his absence. Thankfully, neither is painted as the victim or the villain and politics stay on the sidelines as we focus solely on these characters. This story is small in the face of the beautiful soundscape and stunning visual imagery, the portrait of these young marines during the longest war in American history.
The questions that BASETRACK LIVE and it’s creators (Edward Bilous, Jason Grote, Sean Bockley, Michelle DiDucci, Greg Kalember and Anne Hamburger) grapple with are epic in scope, ranging everywhere from what the personal repercussions of the war in Afghanistan, how can the public, with no personal connection to the military, understand the impact of this war on the men and women who fight for us and what is returning to “normal” after a war. These unanswerable questions only begin to scratch the surface of what needs to be discussed. The talk back afterwards stirred up only more and questions as to what our societal moral injury is for not caring for our young people who return. While it lacks any political proselytizing, this is a political piece, I left asking questions about why, to quote the show, “Americans don’t understand, envy or respect military jobs” and why this gross generalization leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. My liberal rage boils over the stereotypes, the lack of politics or delving into recent military scandal, but it was also humbled, while being taught that it’s now correct to call it PTS (post traumatic stress) and leave out the disorder. By focusing on this real story from the couple, the creators paint the entire picture of the war in Afghanistan, without focusing on the politics and getting entangled in the “we’re right, you’re wrong” mentality that dominates the 24 hour news cycle.
Yes, the piece brings up big ugly questions that have no answers, but at the heart of it, the importance of the shared experience of the piece, putting civilians and military into a room together to engage, is a noble mission. My original question about who was actually seeing the show was answered at the end, when vets, active military members and military families were asked to stand. A small handful of people rose and accepted the applause, indicative of the less than 1% of Americans that served in military in the last 12 years. This gives me hope, this small community, mimicking the surprising hope at the end of the piece. The story of AJ and Melissa is a success story and that makes the entire event rare in the current media culture of telling the story of the Afghanistan War. As AJ embarks on the next journey in his life, without Melissa and without the Marines, we know that he will be okay, because he was able to marry the staunch values of the marines with the need to ask for help. The scar of war is still there, but it’s healing. “The hard part is over” AJ’s therapist tells him at the end, and that rings true, we’re all moving forward. This message of hope also indicates a new and exciting era for En Garde Arts, back on the scene with Anne Hamburger at the helm. I’m excited to see what the company will grapple with next, how they’ll bring project with big scopes and questions to the stage with interviews and multimedia.
Hannah Wolf is a stage director, dramaturge, teacher and creative producer originally from Juneau Alaska. She’s developed work with playwrights and devising ensembles at companies such as Perseverance Theatre, the Vineyard Theatre, Theatre in the Rough, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Elephant in the Room, Writopia Lab, The Secret City and The Kennedy Center. She has a BA from Western Washington University, trained with the SITI Company and is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, a core company member of Superhero Clubhouse and part of the 2014/15 Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. She recently returned to the US after spending a year in Bucharest Romania on a Fulbright Research Grant and curates the blog Ask A Director. Find her on the internet at Hannahjwolf.com