Thursday, May 10, 2012

Camp Logan by Celeste Bedford Walker

L - R Bill Lee Brown, Dorian Christian Baucum, Dwain A. Perry, Sammie Wayne IV, Kaylon Hunt 

By Joe Straw

Forty years ago (when I was, a kid), I was at the dedication of the “Nuts” Museum in Bastogne Belgium. And, in a particular ceremony, a man in his forties with his head down, walked to the podium to tell his story.  His hands were thick and calloused. He said he was a farmer and he told us about his farm life in 1944 before the allied invasion. His job was to plow and he was told to plow lots and lots of open fields.  One day far off in the distance he said he heard planes. Suddenly he started to break.  Unable to get the story out, he stopped to control his emotions. He heard the planes, watched the men fall, parachutes open, and they crowded the sky in a wide blanket of green.   He smiled as he watched thousands of soldiers falling and then he said he started weeping uncontrollably because he knew that liberation was near.   

The Robey Theatre Company, Ben Guillory, Producing Artistic Director in association with Sparkling City Entertainment, Ju Vee Productions, and The Latino Theatre Company present the west coast premiere of Camp Logan written by Celeste Bedford Walker and directed by Alex Morris.

This finely produced presentation of Camp Logan has a lot to say about the military, African American soldiers of the 24th United States Infantry Regiment, and the way they were treated during the onset of the Great War.

Looking at the Set Design of Camp Logan by Rodney Rincon & Phil Buono, one realizes this is a monster of a show.  A lot of work and fine details went into the recreation of the look, circa 1917. The Costume Design by Naila A. Sanders, and the Property Master and Set Furnishings by Vanessa Paul were incredible and very much worth the price of admission.

Also, upon entering the theatre, the set has a very distinctive odor of manliness, canvas, sweat, dirt and mud all drenched in the fabric of things we’ve come to know as the military.

The play begins, somewhat hap hazardously, on this particular night.  As the men are introduced to their new home in Camp Logan, the captain provides instructions to the men on how to conduct themselves according to their code of honor while on leave from the base.  But the problems on this particular night is that Captain Zuelke’s  (Jacob Sidney) dialogue is lost due to the noise and chatter coming from back stage and/or through the sound system and making it difficult to understand the introduction of the play. (Hopefully this problem has resolved itself.)

The admonished men are dismissed and fall into their bunks and get to know their surroundings, and as they do, they pour liquor and talk about the things they hope to accomplish. And they get into heated arguments about being in the military, going to France, and fighting the good fight.  They do not believe their war is with the segregated south or in Texas.  They want to earn the respect of their nation by fighting overseas and coming home heroes.

Joe Moses (Bill Lee Brown) seems the oldest of the group.  His ways are set and he challenges those who are not tolerant of colored GIs.  He is constantly crossing the racial boundaries set by white society. When he leave base, he’s reprimanded for not abiding by the racist rules of Houston Texas. When he’s on base, he’s reprimanded for confronting the white construction workers for dumping the water from the colored barrel.

Gweely Brown (Sammie Wayne) is a man who’s going to enjoy his time on earth no matter what the white man says. Pour him another and get out of the way seems to be his motto.

Boogaloosa (Dorian C. Baucum) is a military man first and an entertainer second. He holds a trumpet like it’s his baby but one is not convinced if this is his first love, second love, or 80th love.

Robert Franciscus (Dwain A. Perry) is an acting MP but the locals will not let him carry a sidearm because they don’t want the military challenging their authority and they especially do not want colored military men carrying guns in their God-fearing and racist town.

Hardin (Kaylon Hunt) is the youngest of the group.  He grew up in Minnesota and was educated there.  He has a belief that segregation will soon end and that things will work out soon as blacks take the opportunities to educate themselves.

The other guys laugh at him.

Sgt. McKinney (Lee Stansberry) catches a whiff of liquor as marches into the tent with a sack and demands the bottles from the men.  Boogaloosa pulls out five of six bottles in a moment that seems endless but still manages to keep one bottle for himself.

Sgt. McKinney will have none of this.  He practices the art of teetotalism.   His career of 22 years is riding on this deployment and he does not want anything to go wrong at this camp.  Still he defends his troops to Captain Zuelke.

Jacob Sidney

Captain Zuelke, white, is not happy with this assignment.  He wants to keep the white establishment in town happy, including sending his men out in blackface to entertain the whites. He is not a West Pointer and does not think his career will go beyond a certain level. He is crestfallen and wants to make the best of it in this dusty old Texas town. But there are problems when he finds out his men are being harassed into fights and seemingly edging into “white folks” territory but no matter he’s stolen enough liquor from his men and he’s got enough chewing tobacco to keep him numb for the duration of his stay in the pleasant town of Houston.  

After a short amount of time, the 24th Infantry Regiment has worn out its welcome and tensions in town between the white locals and the black soldiers escalate out of control.  Hardin is witness to a murder and tensions flare even higher.

The Robey Theatre Company does some really fine work and Camp Logan is a very fine production. But it could use a little tune up, a little sprucing if you will.  And while I’m at it, I might as well throw in my two-cents worth.

While the actors did fine job, I want to see the group emerge as a cohesive fighting force.  This particular group needed more training, at least in the sense of a fighting unit, and a regiment that knows what the others are thinking.  More marching, more fighting, more cleaning rifles, more of everything that a fighting unit does in order to give the show extra backstory. And while we might not agree with everything they do on stage, in the end they should be the force that watches out for each other and protect each other with all their might.

No man’s path is the same, and no man’s objective is the same, still each has a sincere want, a goal, a need in life.  So, it is my belief, that everyone wants to get to France. But they need to find a way to get there. This is no small task considering what they must endure. But France is a goal any man could relate to, fine wine, Paris, and beautiful women who grow plentiful, like grapes on the vine. The men speak about France, and getting recognition, so why not have this be the through line and make this play about an army unit getting to France.  The men’s objectives are achieved by their persistent and passionate pursuit. This may sound a little silly but with minor adjustment the play will soar beyond reasonable expectations as it should and as it is capable.

Celeste Bedford Walker, the playwright, has written a remarkable play that deep down plays like Chekov’s Three Sisters. The sisters all have the desire to get to Moscow but in the end they never get there. Maybe this is putting a simplistic tone to this wonderful play. Camp Logan is what theatre is supposed to be, to enlighten and entertain, and to give us a perspective that no one else speaks about.  This play does enlighten us on many levels and tells us there is more than one side to every story.

Dorian C. Baucum as Boogaloosa has a very distinct look about him.   His character is from Louisiana, a Creole background, and there is this thing in his character that sends him off the deep edge at times.  In a quiet moment, he goes off, in a voodoo-like sensory trance affected by some kind of stimuli, and saved by his best friend. It is a wonderful moment and a terrific performance.  But, find a way to make to the trumpet work or drop it.

Bill Lee Brown as Joe Moses was excellent. He pushed a lot of boundaries to get where he wants to be as a respected man. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, this was not going to get him to France anytime soon. Still he lets life get in the way and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s all the in the pursuit of an excellent characterization.

Kaylon Hunt as Hardin has a very interesting look and manner about him. He somewhat falls in line with his own personality for this performance, young and articulate, and capable of going to an extreme.  As the character, when they take him out to get “laid,” he doesn’t come back a changed man. Also, he makes a big mistake about describing the death of a soldier, and he never comes to the realization of what he has caused. And in the end, the kid must insist upon taking up the fight.  He must get his gun, his bullets, his bible, and whatever it takes until someone stops him.  There must be someone left to tell the story and he does have a story to tell in the end.  

Dwain A. Perry as Robert Franciscus does a nice job. He is a man who tries to keep the peace.  But his peace is interrupted when he tries to take control of a misunderstanding and finds himself on the other end of a beating.  Rather than being beaten, he suddenly becomes a man who wants revenge and does not think too clearly.

Lee Stansberry as Sgt. McKinney stands up for his men - plain and simple.  But when he finds out his orders, what the Captain has in store for the men, he takes the bull by the horns and adds fuel to the fire. He dreams are destroyed, his life has no future, and he’s not letting his fighting men be cut down without putting up a fight.   He loves his men so much that he is willing to die for them. Stansberry’s work was exceptional and he can add a little more military to his character without hurting his already fine performance.

Jacob Sidney as Captain Zuelke did a nice job.  This is a role that requires more mistakes—mistakes in character, in deed, and trust.  Here is a man who cares nothing for his men.  He is there to scratch out a living, do his time, and get out while the getting is good.  But it’s never going to get good, that’s why he stuck out in Bumscrew, TX, getting drunk, and harassing his men. And while he chewing tobacco, dark spit should be flying everywhere, in the can, on the desk, and on his shoe. In the end, despite his mistakes, he gets one thing right, but it’s far too late.

Sammie Wayne as Gweely Brown has a very nice moment when he stands center stage and tells his story.  It is a poignant moment and nicely done, but he needs to be clear in his objective.  At times he seems to grasp for words during the course of the performance. He's done most of the work now he needs to find his path and shoot straight through the clearing. Still, there were moments when there was a sincere truth to his performance when the words are clear and his intentions are strong and that was a beautiful thing.  

Alex Morris, the director, is a tremendous actor at The Robey Theatre Company and this is his directorial debut. There are a lot of nice things in this production. Missing in this production is a sense of one for all and all for one - us against the white world out there.  One of the men steals a sign that says “no coloreds or dogs” and brings it back to the tent. He does little with the sign. That man should stand on the bunk and hold it up for all to see and react.  This would be a moment to bring them all together make them one unit. Also, we never got a sense the town was breathing down their neck, that they were just outside the door, that our men would do anything to keep them out, and the things we do on stage right before we go offstage to meet our historical challenge. The backstory was missing, the men’s backstory, the citizen’s backstory, and the Captain’s backstory.  There is a lot of bickering and fighting during the course of the performance but when the going get tough, the men should stand together and fight. Still these are only minor problem to a wonderful production.

L-R Lee Stansberry, Sammie Wayne IV, Bill Lee Brown, Dwain A. Perry, Dorian Christian Baucum, Kaylon Hunt

The wonderful Producers were Vanessa Paul, Julius Tennon, and Viola Davis. Ben Guillory is the Producing Artistic Director of The Robey Theatre Company.  The Sound Designer was Eric Butler and the fabulous Costumer Designer was Naila A. Sanders. 

Karen McDonald the Choreographer gave us a delightful soft shoe on stage. 

Run!  And take a friend who likes to witness another version of history that is not often told.

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