January 21, 2011

KC Stage

‘Asking and Telling’
The Rep’s first production of the new year is a powerful piece of storytelling.

by Greg Boyle

True to form, under the leadership of Artistic Director Eric Rosen, Kansas City Rep has started the new year with another potentially risky choice.  And again, like a riverboat gambler on a hot streak, Rosen’s instincts pay off. The piece is a winner.

With Another American: Asking and Telling, we are offered a one-man show based on the social, political, and military issue referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It is a serendipitous bit of scheduling, since the “don’t ask, don’t tell.” policy has been rescinded by Congress as of Dec. 18 this past year. Knowing that only adds to the power and poignancy of this production.

Marc Wolf speaks out in Another American: Asking and Telling.  

The question of a soldier’s sexual orientation is a strictly American obsession. It doesn’t exist in the armies of European countries. In fact, there is a long history of gay soldiers worldwide dating back to ancient Greece, when a formidable fighting force called the Sacred Band of Thebes was deliberately created with pairs of male lovers. The Samurai warrior culture of Japan for centuries included much of the same ethos. However, the American Uniform Code of Military Justice of 1950 established homosexuality discharge rules, and a Department of Defense directive of 1982 further stated, “… homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was to have been a policy compromise to an initiative by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to revoke discrimination against gays in the U.S. military. Its original intention backfired, and led to the discharge of over 14,000 members, many of them highly qualified personnel with outstanding service records.

That this production succeeds at all is a testament to the evolution of American public consciousness over the past generation. Some of the credit for that must surely go to the familiarization process created by mass entertainment such as the TV show Will and Grace. That this play led to a standing ovation at a Midwestern theatre packed with military veterans is a testament to the brilliant performance of the author and compiler, Marc Wolf.

Between 1997 and 1999, Wolf interviewed approximately 200 people, and convinced them to bare their souls. In most of the cases that we see, the individuals were gay or lesbian themselves, but others were persons adamantly opposed to homosexual soldiers serving. We hear all sides, from persons high and low, from grunt marines to full colonels, to the former member of the Clinton Administration who suggested the policy in the first place. We hear sad tales of abuse, tender stories of love found, angry rants against an intolerant and unfair system, and pure comedy about the absurdity of it all.

The author tape-recorded all the interviews, and has done the remarkable job of using the people’s own words — verbatim — in performance. This could have turned out to be an incredibly tedious and rote recitation. However, Wolf makes it all very theatrical, acting out each and every interviewee. He presents us with perhaps twenty different characters, each of whom he gives distinctive body language and vocal patterns. The actor includes the typical stammering and searching for words that a normal person does in daily speech, and he even varies that with the character.

The entire performance takes place on a stage with only a desk and single chair. All the same, Wolf keeps us captivated for two hours. At no point does he pander to the audience. There are no prancing or mincing characters, even though one introduces himself as “Mary Alice”. Wolf plays it straight, letting the individuals tell their stories without him editorializing. The result is a highly entertaining evening of theatre.

Another American: Asking and Telling is playing at the Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus through Feb. 6. For tickets, call the Kansas City Rep box office at 816-235-2700, or go online at www.kcrep.org.

Greg Boyle can be contacted at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.