FORCES TO BE RECKONED WITH ON AND OFF STAGE – US VETERANS
by Rose Desena
What do Edgar Allan Poe, Julia Child, Lou Rawls, Irving Berlin, Kurt Vonnegut, and James Earl Jones have in common? They are all United States veterans. I was most surprised to see the name of Julia Child, too bad she wasn’t a chef back then, a lot better food would have been served.
I have a fond affection for Vets, although the subject of war is very controversial I was most appreciative after the devastation of 9/11 to know the military was on alert to keep our homeland safe. I have family on active duty, having served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have watched them struggle to re-enter civilian life. I am grateful that there are organizations willing to help our vets integrate after returning home and help them to explore careers in the arts, to help with healing the physical and emotional wounds of war.
In Los Angeles there is a wonderful organization, called United States Veterans Artists Alliance (USVAA). They actively encourage and support veterans in the arts, humanities, and the entertainment industry. USVAA is a non-partisan organization based in Culver City and leading up to Veterans Day 2013 (November 11th) they will be joining forces with one of my favorite theater companies the Rogue Machine, (Best Theater Company 2012 – LA Weekly) to present two historic plays conceived, written, directed, performed, and produced by Veterans.
John DiFusco (Writer/Actor-The Long Way Home) is the recipient of a New York Drama Desk Award as well as a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, NAACP Theatre, Drama-Logue, Robby, and Valley Theatre League Award. He created and directed the landmark Vietnam play Tracers, which premiered at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, and made its New York Premiere at The Public Theater, where it was published as one of “The Ten Best of 85/86.” His numerous credits include work as a writer, actor and director. John received the USAF Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service in Vietnam.
Keith Jeffreys (Producer) served with the 82nd Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group (ODA 594 Scuba). In Los Angeles, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, presented him with an official citation from the city, recognizing Keith for his work on veteran’s issues and for his work with veterans in the Arts. In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council presented Keith and all of the USVAA artists with an official Los Angeles City Council resolution recognizing November 1st as Veterans in the Arts and Humanities Day.
Rose: It’s very cool that the city Council presented you with an Official “day.” You’ll have two plays running in rep during that time. Can you tell us a little about each one, and how they fit together?
John DiFusco: “Tracers” is a play I created in 1980 with a group of actors through the workshop process. All of us are Vietnam Veterans. It is based on our personal experiences of the war and it’s after effects. The play became part of the whole Vietnam Veterans Movement. What I thought would be a six-week run at The Odyssey Theatre turned out to be a journey of a few decades. “The Long Way Home – Reflections on the Tracers Journey” is a solo piece I wrote about the conception, creation, and subsequent success of “Tracers.” It is a theatre story and a veteran’s story. Both plays feature music, movement, and poetry.
I wanted to know more about these talented men so I had a little conversation.
Rose: I am a real fan of the Rogue Machine how did they become involved?
John DiFusco: I am a founding member of Rogue Machine. I worked with John Flynn back in the late 70’s/early80’s and we’ve been friends ever since. I wrote and performed a staged reading of “The Long Way Home” at Rogue around Veterans Day 2011, so the piece was spawned there, directed by John.
Rose: How did Keith and USVAA become involved in these projects?
Keith: When we started USVAA in 2004 we began with the idea that it was a big part of our mission to put together theatre productions with veterans playing as many parts as possible, along with directing, producing and performing the tech jobs as well. We’ve had veterans in both lead and supporting roles in the past on our productions, but never to this extent. Launching both shows with actors who are veterans is a dream true for us.
Rose: When you cast “Tracers,” was it an open call, or are the actors/veterans members of USVAA?
John DiFusco: I like to call the casting “Star Search for Veterans.” Yes, many USVAA actors auditioned, but we also did out reach to other groups and a lot of networking with casting directors. So, the cast is from all over the place. This is the first all Veteran cast since the 80’s.
Rose: Can you talk about any notable differences or surprises that you have been affected by while working on this production, as opposed to the original one?
John DiFusco: The Veteran cast has a quicker grasp of all things military, so there is less to teach. I still find that I’m describing the lingo and other “historical” type things as Vietnam becomes more and more of a memory. In workshop discussions I learned that this group has much in common with my Vietnam Vet casts of the past. For many they’re experiences are still very close to the surface. So, it becomes healing to work on the piece.
Rose: What is it that you would like to see people walk away with, after experiencing these performances?
Keith: I think that people will come away with at least three things. First, feeling that these two plays are high quality theatrical experiences. Second, the shows represent an important aspect of the American Experience, both as they relate to the war in Vietnam, but also, the experience of veterans telling about and portraying their own stories through theatre. Third, that they note how extremely talented these young veterans are.
John DiFusco: I suppose as a Theatre Artist I always want people to be moved. When I go to the theatre I want to feel something. “Tracers” is not a linear play. I was very influenced by groups like the Open Theatre and The Living Theatre, so hopefully there is a style that shakes people up and entertains them at the same time. This current crop of young veterans is facing many of the same psychological and emotional challenges that we did. Maybe USVAA and us older Vets can give the wake up call about these servicemen and women, and some healing can begin.
What else does USVAA have coming up? Do you partner with other organizations that support veterans?
Keith: The biggest thing on the horizon is our continued push to recognize the contributions of veterans to American culture by recognizing November 1st nationally as Veterans in the Arts and Humanities Day. On October 4th we are partnering with THE SOLDIERS PROJECT for an art exhibit by Veterans. Hope that you’ll join us at Four Points by Sheraton LAX located at 9750 Airport Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90045. Free admission. We think veterans currently working and making contributions to the Arts and Humanities should be recognized. Some more famous ones include Humphrey Bogart, Charles Schulz, Clint Eastwood, Lou Rawls, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.
This Veterans Day, consider putting your words of appreciation into action by doing something meaningful for those who have sacrificed so much for our country. The Real Warriors Campaign urges everyone to get involved, even if you don’t know any veterans personally.
J.L. Sager wrote a poem that tells about the importance of a Veteran
Thank A Veteran For Your Freedom By J. L. Sager
It was a veteran, not a reporter, who guaranteed freedom of the press.
It was a veteran, not a poet, who guaranteed freedom of speech.
It was a veteran, not a campus organizer, who guaranteed freedom to demonstrate.
It was a veteran, not a minister, who guaranteed freedom to worship.
It was a veteran, not a salesman, who guaranteed freedom to own property.
It was a veteran, not a travel agent, who guaranteed freedom to travel.
It was a veteran, not a politician, who guaranteed freedom to vote.
It is a veteran who salutes the Flag, risks it all for the Flag, and who is buried beneath the Flag.
Thanks to you both, for your time and double thanks for all the work that you do. We have a lot of veterans coming home. It is comforting to know that you will be there for them, and supporting them in their healing.
Veterans Day: a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
I plan on attending both shows and would love to meet some of my readers. For more information about these wonderful productions go to www.roguemachinetheatre.com
TRACERS runs through Sat. Nov. 9th with shows at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays (added performance at 3pm on Sunday, Oct. 13th for audience talk back with the cast and director). THE LONG WAY HOME runs through Thursday, November 7th with shows at 8 pm Thursdays and 3pm on Sundays (added performance at 8 pm on Wed. Oct 9th). The Sunday, Oct. 20th performance 3 pm will be followed by a talk back with John DiFusco and his co-performer Al. Keith. Tickets $30 (see site for discounts). For reservations call: 855-585-5185 or www.RogueMachineTheatre.com
Please read all my reviews @www.thelosangelespost.org/theater