Whatever else you’re doing this weekend, you should drop it. And though it sucks to go to Towson, it doesn’t suck half as bad as going to Baghdad. Bin Laden was just killed, but we are still simultaneously engaged in the nation’s two longest wars. Something like one percent of the population has served. It is lost on most of us what many have done in the last decade and why.
This makes Teling: Baltimore sound like it’s made up of the kind of big questions that I’m not very much interested in anymore. But it’s not. Telling: Baltimore, which will be performed on May 6 and 7 at the Stephens Hall Theater in Towson at 8:00 p.m., has no lessons. It is not about larger points. It is about irreducible details; it is about the absolutely particular.
Here’s the deal. Playwright Jonathan Wei interviewed five veterans, and a military wife and mother. All were from Baltimore. After Wei edited those interviews, he put them together into a larger story. (He has done this as the Telling Project in several other cities, but partnered with the local Veterans Artist Program in Baltimore). Then, the director Heather Mayes started rehearsing with the same people who told the stories. The story-tellers are the actors. They practiced their own lines and the perform them on stage. The danger was that it would feel canned or cheesy. But it didn’t. Instead, their stories—which were ad-libbed—were deeper and more nuanced. They were good stories, but they were almost songs as well.
The speakers—I don’t know whether to call them actors or storytellers and this makes me like the play more— would alternate around various moments of military life. They all told stories about why they enlisted, bootcamp, troubles, and how 9-11 affected them. But they didn’t stand for anyone else. Each person told how he or she felt and told it well. Each was utterly unique and yet, they were a company, an ensemble working together. “It was a lot like the military in that way,” said Jeremy Johnson, a Navy Veteran. “We became close working on this.”
Wei did a masterful job with pacing the material. Most of the high impact moments came from foreshadowing. The group interaction allowed an idea to be brought up several times, almost like a leitmotif, and then disappear again before I had any idea what it was. But I registered it. And when, it came back up again, it had all the more power for having been submerged. Every character has some revealing moment like that. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a play and then I would remember that these people were telling their own stories.
I’m not going to tell you the big stories with the cumulative effect. The Telling Project and the Veteran Artists Program have done a great job with that and I don’t want to ruin it for you. But I could tell isolated stories all day. All seven story-tellers showed a certain gallows humor. Like Pat Young’s story about the ordeal he went through for having to take a shit in a freshly cleaned john. But even the tragic parts—and there are plenty—possess a certain happy wisdom. Telling: Baltimore is candid and realistic and earthy. There’s more cursing than you’re likely to hear on stage any time soon, and it feels right. That’s the way you talk when bullets are flying.
If we don’t need more pundits talking about war, and if we need to hear more idiosyncratic stories, then we need to get our asses to Telling: Baltimore. Because it does that damn well.