“If I had to do it again, I would. But if I had a daughter I wouldn't want her to go through the same things that I did. The scars are too great.”
History tends to swallow women’s stories. They were silenced during their lifetimes, and very little can be done to unearth words that were only ever spoken in perfect privacy, if at all.
So I was excited to learn about the efforts of Ashley Adelman, founder of NYC’s Infinite Variety Productions, and their latest play, In Their Footsteps, playing July 13th and 14th at 59 E 59th.
The play is written entirely with the words of women who served in the Vietnam War, collected by Ashley along with company members Caroline Peters and Kelly Teaford, in a series of interviews. The resulting play transports you to a startling world, focusing on the women who served as volunteers and military personnel in one of the deadliest and most contentious wars of the modern age.
Documentary theatre is new to me. When I meet Ashley, she speaks about her desire to bring history alive in an authentic and accessible way. Her team found five women, ranging in age from sixtyish to over 90, who had served in the war in various capacities. They spoke with each woman at length about her experience, recording hours of firsthand details about the reality of war. The interview material was then patched together into a workable narrative, with no added words.
This style of documentary theatre – where your only source materials are these self-produced interview transcripts – is not without its challenges. For one, memories are imperfect, and details can grow hazy after half a century. For another, these women lived and breathed this war so completely that they didn’t always explain themselves fully during these interviews, because they assumed their interviewers (and the eventual audience) would be familiar with major events. The truth is, the average American is no longer well-versed on the ins and outs of the Vietnam War. References to the Tet Offensive and casual comparisons to the Korean War could go over an audience’s head if they’re not explained.
The team was grateful when the women did take the time to explain certain aspects of the war, such as the United States’ devastating use of the military herbicide Agent Orange. But where they didn’t go into detail, Ashley, who is also directing the show, plans to overcome those potential gaps in knowledge by working with the actors to clarify certain references through tone and staging, and some other creative tactics.
This extra level of effort is well worth it, because the result is an authentic and moving rendering of what it meant to be a woman in this war.
Some were nurses; some were trained military; some were volunteers. They all went to Vietnam to serve their countries, and were shocked to find themselves in the middle of a war like none they’d ever heard of. They were expecting conditions comparable to the Korean War, where the battles had designated areas and the base was protected. The Viet Cong employed guerilla-style tactics, and no area was off limits to attack.
As a result, even women who volunteered with the Red Cross as part of its Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (S.R.A.O) program, expecting to see zero combat, found themselves in danger zones.
The S.R.A.O women were known colloquially as the Donut Dollies, a name left over from when the program operated in World War II where they really did hand out coffee and donuts to the soldiers. Vietnam was deemed too hot for donuts, but that was never really the main function of these women. Their role was to give the men a sense of home— to keep their minds off the hardships of war and focused on the wives, girlfriends, children and mothers for whom they were meant to be fighting.
How do you keep men’s minds off a war that is slowly and brutally consuming them? As one of the team’s interview subjects, Jeanne Christie explains: “We did ... they called it ‘fun and games’… Say that in a light blue dress, where the sun is shining through you, in front of thousands of guys.”
Not to downplay the hardships of the women in combat positions or as nurses on the front line, but the life of a Donut Dolly seems especially draining to me. Ashley feels my pain. “The Donuts had it really hard,” she conquers. They were called, and sometimes treated as, prostitutes. I found this aspect of their stories particularly inspiring, as these women stuck it out, serving the country they loved even when their own worth was questioned and downplayed. They had the unique position of being outliers on the front lines; they were in the midst of battle, risking their lives with their male counterparts, but still seen as inferior. “This is the ultimate patriarchal system,” says Ashley, “and these women held their own.”
There could be no better time for stories like these to take the stage. “Women are called on when things get tough,” says Ashley. The women in this play all served willingly, did the work, and then “went back into the shadows” when the war was over, with little or no recognition.
In the case of the Vietnam War, which grew deeply unpopular with the American people as it dragged on for the better part of two decades, returning soldiers and volunteers were spit on, harassed and vilified. Half a century later, it’s still viewed, largely, as a colossal failure of American interventionism: the ostensible goal – to stamp out Communism – was never achieved, and we lost 58,000 Americans to the effort. And Vietnam, of course, suffered immeasurably worse, with 3 million dead (two thirds of whom were civilians) and aftershocks that still resonate, such as the effects of the brutal Agent Orange, a chemical warfare agent meant as a defoliant but which is still resulting in terrible birth defects in Vietnamese people today, three generations after the war’s end. The country (as well as neighboring countries Cambodia and Laos, which had nothing to do with the war but which the U.S. invaded in an attempt to gain a tactical advantage over the Viet Cong) is also still littered with land mines.
That shame you feel as an American digesting those facts? The women in the play grapple with it too, but in real time, as the bombshells explode around them and they catch the U.S. president in bald-faced lies. “I want to be a proud American,” they would tell themselves, as they listened to Nixon declare to the American people via radio broadcast that they wouldn’t invade Cambodia, only to find out later that he already had.
That distrust of both the media and our political leaders also feels sharply apropos today.
“Documentary theatre comes out at a time of political unrest,” says Ashley. “Can’t trust the media? Go to the theatre.”
I visited Vietnam a couple years ago. I spent three months backpacking up and down the coast, and inland to places like DaLat, a hiking haven in the mountains. I fell in love with fresh mangoes, orange and pink sunsets over the beach, and swimming at dusk with the locals in the South China Sea.
And I was more than a little jolted to learn about this war from the modern Vietnamese perspective.
A quick and dirty primer on the war, for those of us who slept through history class in high school: it began as a civil war, with the North fighting for a unified Vietnam with communist rule and the South wanting something closer to Democracy. The North was modeling itself off China and the Soviet Union, which it saw as successful examples of communist rule, and the U.S. and other allies were backing the South.
In Vietnam, this war is called the “American War,” or variations such as the “American Invasion” or the “Resistance War Against America.” Their most populous city, Ho Chi Minh City, previously called Saigon, was renamed after a man whom many Vietnamese see today as a hero, father, and founder of their country in its current form – and who was a leader of the Resistance from the North.
Which is to say: we (effectively) lost the war in Vietnam. Communism, at least in a form, won. I met some incredible people there; students will approach American tourists in the parks and ask to chat to practice their English. They want to be friends, and they want to know if you’re enjoying their country. They seem proud of where they live. The people I spoke to in my three months seemed, for the most part, happy and healthy, and their land is truly beautiful – some of the best ocean sunrises of my life were on that coast. But there were also people (quietly, privately) upset about the human rights violations, and the government’s favoritism to the economic interests of China over the well being (and healthy land) of the Vietnamese people.
War is a complex topic, and there’s a reason you’ll be hard-pressed to find a clear-cut answer as to the winners and losers of this war, which is all the more reason to put it onstage, especially a piece like this, wherein the audience hears the story directly from the mouths of women who lived it.
“A pieced based in real history bridges generations,” says Ashley. “We’re using actors who weren’t alive during the Vietnam War, yet they connect to these stories in a very real way.” Infinite Variety took the actors to see the Vietnam monument in D.C., to touch the black sloping curves, and to read name after name, all imprinted on their own reflections. They took the actors at night to get the full effect. “It feels holy,” she tells me.
Ashley wants to “tell untold stories” and bring history alive for people, so they can connect to something that may have otherwise felt inaccessible. “The voices come alive” when they’re onstage, she tells me.
The effect is dialogue that is smooth and true-to-life:
“I was so excited. My parents were not. They had just done everything they could to prevent my brother from being drafted, so they were not expecting this.”
You don’t need a trained actor to make this kind of dialogue sound natural. Even as ink drying on the page, it sounds exactly the way people talk in normal conversation.
And that accessibility means that these stories, which might otherwise soon be lost, can come to life on a modern stage. And the audience is ripe for it. “Women are talking now,” says Ashley. She reminds me that sexual harassment wasn’t a term until the 1970s, which may come as a shock to those coming of age in the #MeToo era.
In Their Footsteps is a celebration of real women in a messy and complicated war. One of the subjects, Judy Jenkins, expressed the desire to separate war from the warriors, and Ashley agrees. “War is evil,” says Ashley. “It should end. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our vets.”
Beyond memorializing these women and honoring their efforts, a documentary theatre piece like this has the chance to remind people today of the enduring light of the human spirit, even in the worst of times. Says Ashley, “If I can affect even just one person, I’ll be satisfied.”
Alison Preece is an actress, writer and producer living in NYC. She recently wrote for OnStage Blog about making effective self-taped auditions.