Court-Martial at Fort Devens

by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Mary Beth Easley
Featuring Nambi E. Kelley, Gillian Glasco, Emma O’Donnell
New Federal Theatre at Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street
March 8, 2012 — April 1, 2012 [opening March 15, 2012]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 15, 2012

Nambi E. Kelley. Image by Gerry Goodstein.

Jeff Sweet‘s Court-Marial at Fort Devens takes us into the world of a Massachusetts military base, its racist small town commander,and the women officers and privates under his command. The play begins as a story of the individual women and ends as a story of a cause inspired by a court-martial based on racially inspired treatment. A story of segregated American during World War II and the heartbreaking truth of our social history of incoherently incompatible expectations: the man and women who were asked to serve our country during wartime continued to be treated as second class citizens on base, in service, in life. In the language of the time of this play, the people of color suffering the bigoted treatment were respectfully referred to as “Negro” while the incendiary term of disrespect of the time was “Black”.  A story based on facts and informed by historical research and court transcripts and other hard work not detailed in our playbill but which might assist in assessing the work now on the stage of the Castillo Theatre on West 42nd Street. An important piece of history, and an uneven piece of theatre.

Ruby (Alia Chapman) and Gertrude (Keona Welch) and Ginny (Nambi E. Kelley) and Johnny Mae (Eboni Witcher) meet on a training base in Massachusetts in the later years of WWII.  Several have responded to a call from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to offer their services, to become medical technicians, to do what they can to help the war effort.  From Texas, Detroit, Pittsburgh, DC — the woman converge in Massachusetts’ Fort Devens run by small town Maine superior officer played by Bill Tatum.  The officer is aghast that the negro women will be working with white service men, demotes them to a rank that prevents them from serving in that capacity, and inspires a work stoppage action that is the cause for the court-martial against two of the women. Women career officers illustrate that the repression is not race alone: white Lawson (Emma O’Donnell) and negro Tenola Stoney (Gillian Glasco)  confront the assumptions, limitations, and insults based on their gender. A father, a preacher, and male representative of the Boston NAACP and a few others round out the double- and triple-cast character list.

With moments of luminous performance (in particular Nambi Kelley as Ginny and Gillian Glasco as career officer Tenola Stoney) and intriguing direction involving hyper-stylized moves around edges of small pieces of set to indicate scene transitions, this piece at the same time illustrates some of the challenges to playwrights crafting fact-based plays involving trials and social movements. At the end of this play I feel I’ve been introduced to a broad swath characters in this story, have in part skipped over the inherent drama of the trial itself in favor of other interactions, and wish I’d gotten to know individuals and especially the women at the core of the court-martial a bit better. We have a number of briefly introduced women who choose to enlist (there’s sisterhood there) and who live together on base (with few details here), and the negro and white women superior officers who present layers of bigotry and the particular nuances of gender-based prejudices of the time.  For me there were a few too many male non-military characters, and what seems the extraneous introduction of the first lady in the theatrical flesh to deliver just a few admittedly important lines.

A stunningly important story I did not otherwise know. A production with educational power and more theatrical promise than result (in parsimony, in drama) in my experience. And in this production a playbill-educational opportunity lost while another gift is presented. Program notes include an essay by one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., that provides more about the Airmen’s experience than the story of the trial at the core of this play. A summary of the women’s story (timelines, names, court decisions, subsequent civil rights actions) would be useful in framing this stage world. The struggles and ultimate victories Dr. Brown reminds us of in his essay are general while the story of these particular women at Fort Devens is particular and specific and, in the end, a bit muffled.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 20, 2012)

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