Court-Martial at Fort Devens
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
March 15, 2012
Court-Martial at Fort Devens is a fascinating (and necessary!) historical play by Jeffrey Sweet about a group of African American women in World War II. It is about standing up for what you believe in and peaceful resistance. While the production itself is uneven at times, it features some stunning performances and is accessible and inspiring.
1944. Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Virginia “Ginny” Boyd, Ruby, Gertrude and Johnnie Mae are new members of the Women’s Army Corps. They’ve joined because Eleanor Roosevelt wants them! The First Lady is calling for colored (as they are called in the play) women to join the army and learn skills that they can use to get careers and improve their lives after the war. Our ladies are being trained to become medical technicians: it used to be that a woman of color could only sweep and mop—but no longer!
But when racist Colonel Kimball sees Ginny taking a white soldier’s temperature, he promptly demotes all of the colored WACs to orderlies—now they are limited to mopping and cleaning latrines. When the colonel learns of their discontent over this, he addresses the group, and when his remarks become incendiary and racist, Ginny and many others turn and walk out on him. This prompts a visit from a General Miles, who informs the WACs that if they do not return to their duties, they will be court-martialed and potentially executed for their insubordination. Ginny tries to return to her work, but she can’t—it just isn’t right. She goes to her white lieutenant, Lawson, and politely asks for the court-martial.
The story, with the ensuing court battle and strong interpersonal relationships, is riveting. Exchanges between Ginny and African American Lieutenant Stoney provide an insightful juxtaposition of the routes to creating change—Ginny seeks to stand up immediately for what is right, while Stoney, who is one of very few African American officers, seeks to slowly and calmly work her way through the system in order to exact long-term change.
Nambi E. Kelley is phenomenal as Ginny, a soft-spoken, moral, intelligent young woman who never intends to be a leader or the inciter of change. She doesn’t seek national attention, but she has to do what is right. Kelley’s performance is nuanced and graceful—she doesn’t give in to any stereotypes of a rabble-rousing, passionate leader, but paints us an honest, realistic woman. Emma O’Donnell and Gillian Glasco, as Lawson and Stoney, respectively, deliver all-star performances, bringing compassion (Lawson) and commanding presence (Stoney), intelligence and subtlety to their roles. Frank Mayers gives a dynamic performance as Curtis, a wounded African American private (though this character does not feel, in the script, as fully developed or utilized as it could be) and Eboni Witcher is perfectly fiery as Johnnie Mae.
The main difficulty with Court-Martial at Fort Devens lies in the fact that the show, at present, lacks an arc. The inciting incident (Colonel Kimball’s racist remarks) does not feel climactic or devastating—the words are delivered at the same mild pitch and intensity and lack the commanding presence and vocal power to turn this into the powerful pinnacle the script demands. The court battle that occupies the majority of the second half of the show also lacks dynamism and power—the writing harkens to an Inherit the Wind style courtroom drama, yet the execution of this scene does not deliver that intensity.
Director Mary Beth Easley creates smooth, seamless transitions and makes some very honest, touching moments. Yet the production is uneven, primarily in the casting (there was a disparity in the quality of the acting, one of the actors frequently fumbled on lines and it did not feel like a cohesive ensemble). The material has the power to deliver a very emotional response, but the steady, rather slow pacing and lack of dramatic tension on stage made my response to the show more intellectual than moving.
A Google search for Virginia Boyd yields no results, yet she, with Johnnie Mae, made a huge contribution towards civil rights. Jeffrey Sweet brings this important historical event to our attention and tells us that any of us, whether we mean to or not, will make a difference if we stand up for what we believe in—we don’t have to fight or be outspoken rabble-rousers; by being ourselves and true to our beliefs, we can make change!