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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

So Little is Known

This Friday marks a new debut for me.  No, I don't have another book coming out.  Instead, the show I am directing opens. I had co-directed before but this is the first time I am flying solo. The play is A Piece of My Heart, written by Shirley Laura, suggested by the book by Keith Walker.

Kieth Walker had interviewed 26 women and wrote their stories, or let them tell the own stories, and published them in a book by the same name. Shirley Laura used these stories to write a stage script by the same title, and wrote the stories of six women who served in Vietnam: A Navy Nurse, 2 Army Nurses, a WAC, an Entertainer and a Red Cross Worker are the three women portrayed.  The story begins at the dedication of the Wall in Washington DC in November, 1982 and then the women take you back to where they were in their lives when the decided on a career and/or were sent to Vietnam.  We live through their experiences during the time over there and the aftermath of when they came back until we are at the wall again. It is near impossible to read the book or play without crying. They were amazing women that so much is not known about.

Auditions were in October and we have been rehearsing since November.  I have a fantastic cast and the creative process of watching this grow and develop has been amazing.  It should be noted that I also have two guys in the show. They represent the "American Men" and between the two of them portray about 26 different guys.  Each time they appear it is for a short bit and only to add to the story the woman is telling.  A friend put it best that these guys are more props for the women than parts.

We have heard of the casualties, the fighting, and events like the TET Offensive from Vietnam, but many reading this blog were probably not even born yet.  I grew up with Vietnam on the news every night. It was a way of life, but I was too young to truly understand what was going on.  I did lose a cousin in Vietnam. He was only 19 and I was six at the time.  I barely remember him, but I remember the funeral and my mother getting the telephone call that he had been killed.  There are some things that are etched in our brains forever, no matter how young you are.

I spent a good deal of time researching nurses and the Vietnam War because it is important to me that this play not only tell their story, but honor them, and all men and women who serve our country wherever they are sent.  Before reading the book I knew very little about the women who served during Vietnam or even earlier. It seems the news always portrayed the guys, but women were very much a part of any conflict or war.

As we were designing the set, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted, but there were obstacles to overcome.  The first being that the show is being performed in the round, so the actresses are surrounded, on all sides, by audience.  The blocking had to be so that they are turning and moving so one side of the audience is not blocked for too long of a period.  The second obstacle, the nurses never leave the stage. Even though props are at a minimal, they had to have them "stashed" somewhere where they could get to them when they were needed.  I wanted footlockers (none of the props are huge).

I was having a hard time finding the right footlockers.  I am a bit anal about wanting things to be historically accurate. Nothing drives me crazier when something is so obviously out of place.  I understand sometime you have to accept being close and most things could pass, but I aim for accuracy whenever I can.

Tonight, my stage manager brought in her grandmother's footlocker from WWII for me to use.  All of the stickers and markings are there and nothing is more perfect.  This is yet another era of women serving that I know nothing about.  When my stage manager began telling me that her mother had been one of the nurses to first entered Auschwitz, I was in awe. I couldn't not even begin to imagine the horrors they saw when they began treating the survivors. I am sure it stayed with them their entire lives. I had no idea nurses when into the camps as they were liberated and I am beyond honored that her family is allowing me to use this item in my production.

Many times I am stuck in the Regency Period because that is the era I write in and I've spent countless hours researching the period.  Yet, when I read books like A Piece of My Heart or hear stories about the nurse who arrived at Auschwitz, I realize how much history I have left to learn.

Have you ever read or heard an historical fact or story that has taken you by surprise?


  1. Jane,
    This is fascinating. I knew about women in Vietnam, because I had a Sociology teacher who was a nurse in Vietnam. I didn't think about nurses in WWII, but my husband's grandfather was a medic in the war. He was one of the first to go into Auschwitz too. At least I think it was Auschwitz. I know it was a concentration camp. There's a picture of him hanging in a museum in New Orleans with a little girl with her head bandaged and he's giving her a piece of candy. I don't know where it was exactly, but he saw some tough stuff.

    1. Samantha, I think I had in my mind that nurses were at places like Pearl Harbor or at larger hospitals and maybe that is because of movies and photos. I should have know better though. Korea wasn't long after WWII, and there were plenty of nurses on MASH ;)

  2. As one who studies history there is very little that surprises me these days. There have been women serving in wars for eons. Especially in American wars, although not always on the front lines. Deborah Samson served in the Revolutionary War by dressing as a man, more than a handful did the same during the Civil War. WWI and WWII really brought women into the forefront of wars. Many do not realize that there were also female POWs. Women who did participate in wars were not protected nor too well liked. I think for me the fact that the Korean War never came to a true end surprised me. I didn’t grow up with the war being on the news every night but I was born the year after it ended and there were still many discussions about the war. History is a fascinating and often confusing topic as so often it’s told by those who’ve lived through a time period and because of that facts somehow tend to get blurred.

  3. People who follow me on Twitter may remember that last year I plugged the book The Black Count by Tom Reiss to everyone I knew. It's the story of General Alex Dumas, the son of a French marquis and a slave woman, who rose to become a general in the French Revolutionary army. While he is forgotten to history, his name and much of his life experiences live on in the books and person of Alexandre Dumas, author of the Count of Monte Cristo and the general's son.

    There was SO MUCH in this book that I had no idea of, not just about General Dumas existence, but a whole history of the French Revolution that gets lost under the guillotine.