In 1980, playwright-director John DiFusco worked with fellow Vietnam veterans to conceive an award-winning play, "Tracers," that illuminated the adventures of eight prototypical front-line soldiers as they wended their way from raw recruits in basic training, to green troops first learning the ropes "in country" in Vietnam, to more seasoned "grunts" facing snipers and ambushes and the deaths of their fellow soldiers, and then back again a decade or more later to show how combat's trauma played out in their lives back in "the world."
Reprised now under DiFusco's knowing hand at Culver City's United States Veterans' Artists Alliance Theatre and acted by a dead true all-veterans cast, the play has drawn one glowing review after another, including being named LA Weekly's "Play of The Week." With Tracers's run extended through November 9th, you might want to catch this riveting performance if you care at all about what these wars our country chooses to fight do to the young men -- boys, really -- and now young women we send off to fight them.
Around us in the audience the night we attended were a number of other veterans, I warrant, mostly with partners but a few flying solo. Some were clearly from America's more recent adventures, but some were likely fellow Vietnam veterans as well. Perhaps that explains the reverence that fell over the darkened theatre as the play gained momentum and gravity, as we sensed we were participating in something true and necessary about that long-ago war and about ourselves.
DiFusco made it easy for veterans in the audience to identify with the young soldiers on stage. Just like us, they all sported nicknames, their Scooter and Baby San and Little John and Professor putting us in mind of the fellows in our own squads -- Monk and Cocoanut and Chi-Town and Preacher (he carried a Bible), in my case, and Daddy (he was an ancient 23 and had a kid at home) and Pappy (because he was even older at 25 or 26 and had three kids at home -- and got the back of his head blown off before he ever got back to them).
Like the Professor, who spent his time reading Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of An Author" -- perhaps to keep a distance from his fellow soldiers who might well be killed, perhaps more simply to escape for a few moments from war's insanity and drudgery -- I carried a thick, thousand-page copy of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wakein my fatigue pants pocket, carefully wrapped in plastic to save it from the mud and water of the Mekong Delta, which I would break out from time to time, I'm not sure just why.
The barracks foul-mouthed horseplay that built camaraderie among the young soldiers rang true as well, as did the interplay with their drill sergeant, who assigned dozens upon dozens of pushups and sit-ups and jumping jacks -- "side-straddle hops," according the army field manual the drill instructor was working from -- for looking askance or smiling or confusing right with left or any other trivial thing a lame civilian might think to do.
Most affecting were the times the various soldiers would break free to talk directly to the audience, the Professor reliving the stunned horror he felt at killing another human being for the first time, for instance, or the drill sergeant telling us that ten percent of his "maggots" -- the soldiers he was charged with training -- didn't belong in combat at all, that twenty percent would become fighters and one percent warriors. The rest, he wondered? "Just targets."
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The play's note-perfect Sixties music reminds you that Tracers is rooted in a particular war at a particular point in America's history. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while I was in basic training for my combat tour, and Bobby Kennedy two months later. Fought at a time of great political and social upheaval at home, "Vietnam" -- no need to add "War" -- carries a great weight of associations that don't attach to our recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, nor to the First Gulf War nor Kosovo nor even the Invasion of Grenada.
And certainly the Pentagon learned its lessons from Vietnam -- scrap the draft and the protestors that go with it; muzzle -- "embed" -- the press; outsource to civilians the support functions as cooks and typists and truck drivers; keep the combat soldiers and marines going back for three or four or five tours, not the "one and done" of most Vietnam combatants.
Yet "Tracers" is not about war in any grand sense, not even about the rightness or wrongness of what we did in Vietnam exactly. No, it's much more about war at its most elemental level and what it does to the people who fight them. If you think Vietnam was different from today's wars on that elemental level, you might wonder why 22 veterans, most from these recent wars, are now killing themselves every day.
And as DiFusco's veterans come back to us in 1980, stumbling out of prison, crippled and addicted, seeking mystical answers in a Thai temple, dying of Agent Orange-induced cancer at 40, you wonder if we'll do any better by today's crop of veterans than we did by yesterday's. Go ahead. Hold your breath on that one.
Tracers is directed by John DiFusco, and produced by John Densmore, John Perrin Flynn, and Keith Jeffreys, with a cast of James Bane, Dan Bridges, Christopher DeVinny, Terrence W. Edwards, Jonathan “Doc” Farrow, Juliez Frazer, Trevor Scott, and Jaimyon Parker. It runs Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, November 9th, with shows at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 6pm on Sunday October 20th, 27th, and November 3rd. USVAA Theater in the AMVETS Post II Building, 10858 Culver Blvd., Culver City, California 90230. For reservations contact 855.585.5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
Editor, Hollywood Progressive
Wednesday, 16 October 2013