ETC's COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS makes its case
In terms of fresh faces on the Connecticut theatre scene, Emerson Theater Collaborative is among the freshest. Without a performance space of their own, ETC makes use of a variety of spaces in the Colchester/Mystic region. ETC has a unique mission to present works that celebrate diversity, provide opportunities for youth, and donate a portion of their proceeds to non-profits that dovetail with their work. (Full disclosure: ETC presented my play Gray Matters in 2010)
For a young, upstart company, ETC has generally gone off the beaten path in terms of repertory. Their producing history, as brief as it is, is populated with several world premieres and infrequently mounted works, like Chicago playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s Court Martial at Fort Devens, now playing through April 22nd at Mystic’s First United Methodist Church.
Clearly the production is a labor of love for ETC’s President Camilla Ross. As an African American who has served in the United States Naval Forces, Ross has stood on the shoulders of the women facing the titular court martial in the play. This adds a level of passion and personal investment to the project, especially in a town that is spitting distance from Groton and New London’s military complexes.
During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt led the charge to found the Women’s Army Corps and sought to have black women conscript into service with promises of on-the-job training and opportunities otherwise unavailable during that era of segregation. When Private Ginny Boyd and other women arrive at a Massachusetts military hospital, they are quickly relieved of the aforementioned benefits and relegated to menial and demeaning janitorial tasks based on their color. When they disobey the direct orders of their superiors who are deeply invested in maintaining segregation, the women face the Army’s kangaroo court.
Sweet’s play is an odd creation. The early-going is primarily made up of brief snapshot scenes that last anywhere from a minute to five minutes or thereabouts. There is precious little time for the drama to breathe organically. With so many quick-cuts, it feels as if the stage is lit as often as it is dark, with actors and props shuffling on and offstage every few moments.
The first act, in particular, serves mainly to establish the characters and the scenarios that we will need to know for the second act court martial. The second act feels more like a true drama with more extended scenes and a chance for the actors to really dig into their parts. Of course, we know the women have been treated unfairly and that the military/white culture is to blame. Because our emotional mind is made up within the get-go, the legal procedural in the Army court heightens the tension. I kept thinking that perhaps the play would be better jumping off with the court martial and letting us learn about the events through testimony.
With a Spartan set, minimal sound, military costuming and basic lighting, it falls on the actors and director Joshua Lee Ramos to make Sweet’s docudrama work. As Private Ginny Boyd, Yohanna Florentino gives a stellar, modulated performance. One can sense the contrary forces of duty to the military and duty to Ginny’s self and her race. As her fellow medical technician-turned-orderly, Naza Usher provides humor and sass to the proceedings.
Christopher Lee Williams comes into his own as the attorney who takes the women’s case and shines during his courtroom scenes. Jason Vance is appropriately slick and unnerving in the rather one-dimensional roles representing the Simon LeGree-esque, white military brass. Lesley Billingslea’s fiery scene as a minister on the warpath is a highlight. Other members of the cast serve their roles well for the most part, but occasionally seem uncomfortably ill-at-ease even when, in military fashion, they are “at ease.”
By loosening up some of the actors and tightening up the transitions, ETC;s Court Martial at Fort Devens could be an unforgettable history lesson on racism, segregation and personal fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds.