Eloquently, solemnly, joyfully, in music, prose, poetry and drama, they praised soldiers--and vilified war.
There was no contradiction, said Georg Stanford Brown, who performed the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
“If you are pro-soldier, you have to be anti-war,” Brown said.
So emotionally wrenching was Monday night’s “Sketches of War,” a 3 1/2-hour production in the stately old Colonial Theater here, that Jean Brooks, a proper Cambridge lady in sensible shoes, Ultrasuede coat and an accent so thick it sounded as if her jaws had been wired shut, burst into tears when asked at intermission what she thought of this benefit for homeless veterans of the Vietnam War.
Clearly not given to public displays of sentiment, Brooks confessed, somewhat embarrassed, “I’ve never done that before.”
It was exactly the kind of reaction Ken Smith and his fellow members of the Vietnam Veterans Workshop here hoped for when they joined forces with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet to develop what Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn called “a landmark in the social conscience of our nation, our people and our belief about ourselves.”
The capacity crowd of 1,700 had paid $20 to $500 per ticket for an evening that featured such actors as Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Don Ameche, Christopher Walken, Michael J. Fox and, reading Rudyard Kipling’s poems about homeless returnees from the Crimean War, Dennis Franz and Charles Haid, both Vietnam veterans themselves. In the audience were one-time war protesters, some wearing peace symbols evocative of the era, and those who had fought in Vietnam, many in uniform and standing proudly as each branch of the armed forces was acknowledged in opening statements.
Fifteen recipients of the Medal of Honor attended, dangling this highest award Congress bestows on its citizens from the distinctive blue collar worn with tuxedoes or full-dress blues.
The enthusiastic crowd, said Smith, a 38-year-old ambulance driver who fought as a grunt half a lifetime ago in Chu Lai and Da Nang, “shows we have reached out and touched all Americans, no matter what your politics are, what your beliefs are, or how you felt about the war. We’ve all come together to help solve the problems” of homeless Vietnam veterans.
Handsome and lanky, with specks of gray in his designer-trimmed hair, Smith also displays aspects of the haunted, diffident quality many veterans say they brought back from Vietnam. It was after he and another member of a Vietnam veterans’ support group here visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and discovered homeless veterans living less than 100 yards away that the group organized itself as the Vietnam Veterans Workshop and pledged to raise funds and awareness on behalf of homeless veterans in and around Boston. Researching the issue, Smith’s group said they learned that 30% of all homeless people--as many as 100,000--are veterans, and most of those from the war in Vietnam.
“To shatter some myths about veterans . . . to start the process of welcoming back the survivors who continue to live on the streets of our cities, and to send a beacon of hope across the country,” Smith said, “Sketches of War” was conceived as a “deliberate mix” to help reconcile divergent views of the Vietnam experience.
Emphasizing that “we are all Americans, first of all,” he added, “if 30% of the homeless were anti-war protesters, you can bet your ass the Vietnam veterans would be there for them.”
Time has eased some of the wounds of the war, Smith said, “and I think the anti-war protester is coming to realize that he vented his frustrations on the soldier himself instead of on the politician.”
Another Vietnam veteran, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), said he was “struck by the unique mixture of the dialogue of the last 20 years, of patriotism, gratitude and reality.” At a party several hours after the show, Kerry said, “I’m still digesting it.”
Each element of the production reflected this varied approach to the valor of soldiers and the horror of war. From Shakespeare, Brown and Jordan Lage read from “Henry V"; Walken and Chuck Stransky were the enemies who reach accord in “Coriolanus.” Members of Vetco, the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Co., assaulted the collective conscience of the audience with the body-bag scene from “Tracers,” and later, two of the same actors captured the perils of reentry in a scene from “Back in the World.”
Lindsay Crouse, who is married to Mamet, the show’s director, read from the novel “365 Days” by Ronald J. Glasser. A former Vietnam nurse, Judy Tracy, spoke about “women, the war and reconciliation.” Michael J. Fox, barely old enough to remember the war’s onset, read poetry by Vietnam veterans. And in full kilt regalia, the Pipe and Drums of the New York City Police Department’s Emerald Society played traditional Celtic tunes, “New York, New York,” “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “God Bless America.”
Sixteen years after they opened the show in Boston, Al Pacino and other members of the original cast of “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel” performed excerpts from that play.
Don Ameche, Kevin Bacon, Mike Nussbaum and Robert Prosky were among the actors who appeared in “Cross Patch,” Mamet’s ironic look at a convention of mercenary soldiers.
And, in a moment reminiscent of anti-war sing-alongs, folk singers Bob Gibson, gray and paunchy, and Tom Paxton, merely gray, had the audience join in on the refrain from a song Shel Silverstein wrote for the occasion:
“Get away, get away, we can’t use you no more. Don’t stand at our windows, don’t knock at our door,” the audience chanted to imaginary veterans. “‘Cause we’re trying to pretend there was never a war, and you’re just a constant reminder.”
Tony Josef, a 43-year-old manufacturer of kitchen appliances from Glendale, Calif., who served with the Marines in Vietnam in 1970, said he and his wife, Anne, flew in from Los Angeles in hopes of re-creating the event in Southern California. Josef has formed a West Coast branch of the Vietnam Veterans Workshop, he said, and has discussed the feasibility of staging a similar performance with Smith, Mamet and others involved in the Boston production.