Walk the Mountain
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 11, 2006
"War is not about policy—it's about people."
This simple, powerful statement is part of Jude Narita's message to her audience in the program for her one-woman show Walk the Mountain. It's also the theme of the play; there's really not much else I need to tell you to explain what she's conveying here.
But I will tell you that Narita expresses herself with potent eloquence, so much so that her work here is unforgettable in its emotional directness. Narita tells us stories about Vietnamese and Cambodian women during and after the terrible wars in Indochina from the 1950s until the 1990s. They started when the French returned after the Japanese were driven out after World War II; and although the Americans stopped fighting in 1975, Pol Pot continued to terrorize the people of Cambodia for several years after that, and the United States embargo on trade—which resulted in a great deficit of medical supplies and technology in the newly united postwar Vietnam—didn't get lifted until the Clinton administration.
In Walk the Mountain we meet people we're tempted to call "innocent" or "victims" or both, but neither word really gets to the heart of it: they're just plain people, not personally at war with any cause or any country, whose suffering is the supposed "unintended" consequence of warfare. Americans in particular seem prone to forget about or ignore these people because, except for 9/11 and a few other isolated incidents, we remain a country that has not been attacked within in its own borders. The Vietnamese and Cambodians were attacked, for decades, by foreigners and in some cases by themselves. The characters in this play include a mother searching for sons killed in battle whose bodies are now missing, desperately seeking closure for them and for herself; a doctor who worked for a decade during the war in a jungle hospital, now giving tours to foreign dignitaries of the laboratory where the horrifying effects of Agent Orange are being documented and researched; a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime; and a Vietnamese immigrant in America, adjusting to the myriad cultural differences between her homeland and her new adopted country.
Their stories have largely gone unheard, which is a principal reason why Walk the Mountain is so significant a work, not only of theatre, but of oral history. (Narita's text here is based on conversations with Vietnamese and Cambodian women in America and in those two countries.) Narita's performance captures the voices and spirits of these women magnificently; she shifts from one to another with additions of just a few props or costume pieces. During the transitions, video and slides are projected at the rear of the stage, generally offering views of some of the places or events she talks about in the guise of one of her characters.
One story in Walk the Mountain—about an American attempt to airlift Vietnamese children out of the war zone—is so shocking that several people in the audience gasped as Narita completed it. My companion and I were both alive and aware at the time when this happened, but it was the first either one of us had ever heard of it. Too much of the human cost of war is hidden from us, now as much as then. How many subjects are more essential that the one Narita boldly confronts in this remarkable show? And why is it that her voice, stirring and powerful as it is, still feels so alone?