Know Theatre of Cincinnati makes a habit of pushing boundaries. The company often stages unfamiliar plays, scripts about topics sometimes tough to discuss. Such productions might not be best-sellers in a particular theater season, but they are important catalysts for essential conversations. One of those is onstage right now with Know’s world premiere of Sean Christopher Lewis’ Militant Language: A Play with Sand.
Here’s the synopsis that Know offers: “After strife begins to erupt in Iraq, soldiers working at a construction site find themselves confused and covered in blood amidst a war that can’t seem to be resolved. After a 16year-old boy disappears from his village, a native in search of the missing boy is taken captive, and the American soldiers must hide him or risk losing their own lives.”
The specific story has universal implications. “We’re in a hostile environment,” the unit’s captain bellows.
“This is too fucking ugly,” one soldier bemoans. “War is ugly,” he’s told.
The soldiers don’t say much about patriotism or their mission — guarding a construction site. In fact, their task is a mystery. The question “What are we building here?” is never answered, and there’s no hint on the sand-covered stage (designed and lit by Andrew Hungerford) — all we see are a few ruined truck parts, no evidence of anything actually being built.
Perhaps that’s a metaphor for the damage of war, when things aren’t built but rather steadily demolished. That’s certainly what’s happening to four soldiers and their captain. Pfc. Marcus Goop (Babs Ipaye) is conflicted about a violent act that is only slowly revealed to us. He’s also conflicted about his sexuality.
Capt. Davis Crain (Jeff Groh) tries to hold things together, but the spinning violence is beyond his control. Pfc. Emma Beed (Courtney Brown) reveals a plain, unfeminine upbringing, but she’s forced into several degrading female roles with her fellow soldiers. Sensitive Pfc. Andrew Wallace (Daniel Hines) mostly wants to strum his guitar and sing Country songs (which Hines handles beautifully), but he soon gets swept up in the turbulence. And Pfc. Damian Jacks (Fang Du) is obsessed with posing as a caricature of a wild-man soldier.
The missing boy is the immediate catalyst for escalating violence, but the potential for a resolution is available from an even-tempered Iraqi, Jassim Abdullah Aziz el-Nadij (Vandit Bhatt). The tension of the circumstances, however, prevents the unit from seeing a path to defuse the situation. Instead, Jassim becomes a hostage, jeopardizing each character’s future.
We hear back-stories from each soldier, especially Goop and Beed. Goop has been stereotyped as a bad black kid who is suited for violence, while he actually has the personality of a poet. But his anger is gradually overcoming his goodness and undermining his common sense. Beed, raised in a conservative, traditional home (despite her tomboyish memories) recalls Bible stories and connects them to the land where the war is being fought. Her unlikely discovery of a baby in a basket (whom she names Moses) gives Militant Language a mythic overlay that underscores the universality of the message.
The cumulative effect of conflict — like the sand that slowly, steadily rains from the sky, permeates the air and afflicts Goop — is devastating. As happens in war, things don’t go well, and Militant Language has a searing outcome, demonstrating the troublesome repetition of violence that begets more violence. That’s a challenge with a play like this, which states the obvious, provides us with some insight but then stumbles with what to make us do with the information beyond shake our heads over the horror of it all.
Director Jason Bruffy keeps the two-act, 100-minute production taut and tense. Each actor has a moment of revelation, but Lewis’ script needs to provide more connectivity between them, despite the premise of how the pressures of war corrode personal relationships. Predictably, each soldier descends into his or her personal hell, but Lewis’ script too often distills each to a singular emotion — especially the hyperactive Jacks and simple-minded Wallace.
Know has assembled a talented group of actors for its 2008-2009 season. Ipaye is forceful and gutwrenching as the troubled Goop. Brown reveals the challenges of a woman in uniform. Bhatt, a member of Know’s 2007-2008 company, offers a telling contrast to the hair-trigger solders: The man accused of terrorism is the calmest person onstage. Groh, a veteran of several local stages, brings a solid maturity to the role of the cynical captain.
Know deserves support for bringing forward a work like this during a political season. It’s worth seeing; you’ll have things to talk about afterward. Thanks to a generous grant from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation, all seats for Know’s productions this season are just $12. Get one and pay attention to some Militant Language.
To see the actors who play the four soldiers in entirely different roles, catch Know’s second fall production, Reefer Madness: The Musical, being performed in a rotating schedule with Militant Language through mid-November. (See Tom McElfresh's review of Reefer Madness here.)
MILITANT LANGUAGE: A PLAY WITH SAND, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.