Military life as a setting for racial antagonism tends to make for potent theater. Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” (which became the film “A Soldier’s Story”) explored that dynamic, as did David Rabe’s “Streamers.” Now comes Patrick J. Mainello and Victoria Hartman’s “Monsoon Christmas” (at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood) in which black and white Marines square off in 1972 Okinawa.
The story was inspired by Mainello’s Marine experiences in the Philippines, during which he observed the efforts of an angry black corporal to turn his barrack into a racial warring ground. But when he brought the real-life scenario to Lex artistic director Hartman, she had a different reaction--that the author’s point of view was unbalanced, and that Mainello himself seemed unaware that the white characters’ subliminal prejudice set the stage for a confrontation.
“It hadn’t occurred to me,” the New York-born Mainello, 35, said, shrugging. “But it’s like a line in the play” when a black character asks a white man to see the world through his eyes.
“I had to start thinking, ‘Suppose the colonel was black? Suppose the major was black? Suppose the general was black?’ Everywhere you look in our society, the power figures are white men. I realized I’d never seen the picture from that side before. I was prejudiced without even realizing it,” Mainello said.
“What I saw in this story was a chance to make a statement about prejudice from both sides,” said director Hartman, 35, who was responsible for the script’s extensive rewrites. “I felt like I was the detective. I’d say to Patrick, ‘What was the real story here?’ ”
Speaking of the white sergeant who unconsciously comes down harder on the blacks in his unit, Hartman asked, “And who is this guy Barnet? What’s his background? Does he have any black friends?’ ”
The director is still troubled by what she perceives as a simplistic, almost myopic, reaction to the work. “There was an article in the L.A. Weekly,” she said, frowning, “that said: ‘The source of the tension in the play is a disgruntled black Marine who’s a back-seat militant.’ I think that’s unfair. The character’s militancy only reveals the prejudice that’s already there. He’s just the baking soda that makes it rise.”
Hartman comes to her current position with a background in acting and dance. Born in New York, she studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse, later directed children’s theater in France, then segued to the Iowa Theatre Laboratory, which was pioneering the work of Jerzy Grotowski. While in Iowa, she also ran a theater therapy program at the women’s prison. In 1980, Hartman moved to Los Angeles--and in 1987, she and actress Dorothy Lyman co-founded the Lex Theatre.
Mainello’s background is squarely in the gung-ho military mold; he notes that he enlisted in the Marines “because it sounded like more of a challenge. The Army guys were telling me, ‘It won’t be that hard; you can handle it.’ The Marines recruiter told me, ‘We’re going to run you ragged, put you down, give you a hard time.’ I said, ‘OK, that sounds good.’ ” He ended up spending 2 years at Camp Pendleton and 22 months in the Philippines, finishing his service at the air station in El Toro.
Now Mainello works as a coordinator and assistant director in TV and film (his credits include David Lee Roth’s “Just a Gigolo” video), and has another play up his sleeve: “It’s all-women, instead of all-men.
“I don’t know if I should go into it,” he said, lowering his voice. “At one time, I was the manager of a massage parlor, and I got to know the women there really well.” He said he has a lot of stories about how the women ended up in that line of work.
Although Mainello sees positive signs in the military, in the growing number of black officers, he said: “As far as politics go, I think people are more interested in the economy and making money--and watching out for themselves. That’s No. 1. Then there’s Central America. Race relations seems way down the list.”
Hartman agrees that the current climate is cool to civil rights concerns. “That’s what I think this material’s strength is,” she said. “Addressing ourselves to these issues in an era when we don’t want to look at anything very deeply. The image I have of this play is that Mississippi is still with us. It’s quieter now, but no one’s off the hook. Prejudice hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still there. It’s in you, and it’s in me. Just take a look.”