Friday, June 17, 2011

Eyes of Babylon in New York

Jeff Key

Jeff Key took the long road—via Iraq, a ditch in Texas and many other way stations across America—to perform on a New York stage. Key is currently presenting a slice of his own life as a gay Marine in his one-man show, “The Eyes of Babylon,” at 59E59 Theaters.

Reviewers have stretched to find cultural comparisons to Key’s mind-blowing monologue, which he developed from a war journal he wrote in Iraq in 2003 and worked out in unexpected places, such as Cindy Crawford’s roadside peace camp in 2005 outside President Bush’s Texas ranch, and honed in performances in community theaters from California to Kentucky. “[It's] as if Jack Kerouac went to war." (Salt Lake City Weekly) “A poetic depiction worthy of Allen Ginsberg." (L.A. Times)

I first met Jeff Key, who is a board member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, at an IVAW-sponsored Warrior Writers poetry workshop and reading in New York a couple of years ago. I’ve heard him at subsequent workshops and readings present variations and offshoots of the stories in “The Eyes of Babylon,” which runs 90 minutes. On stage, he is a more compelling performer than was Allen Ginsberg, who was no slouch at drawing rapt audiences. As a reviewer in The Advocate noted, Key’s dramatic presentation moves “from humor to tears to outrage in the blink of an eye."

Key, who grew up in Alabama, is proudest of presenting his bluntly critical outlook on the war in Iraq and coming out as a gay Marine in conservative places such as Liberty, Kentucky, that drew protests from gay-phobic Christians.

“There was a bigger audience there [in Kentucky] than was here tonight,” Key said after a recent preview performance at the off-Broadway theater complex on 59th Street near Park Avenue. “Liberty, Kentucky is the kind of town where everybody knows everybody else and still they came out to hear me.”

What they heard and saw was a scene by scene awakening of a handsome, six-foot, four-inch tall, muscular Marine discovering in Iraq that his love of country and sense of patriotism had been hijacked to wage war in a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 assaults on America.

More unsettling for many people, audiences see Key hesitantly reveal to fellow Marines that he’s gay. What happens next is what makes this play work as both art and insight into cultural change in America. Reading his war journal to other Marines, Key discovers his voice for memorably conveying things the way he sees them.

"You can't say, 'I support the troops' and step over the homeless vet going to your flag-waving rally, and criticize veterans from this war who are speaking out against it," Key said in a 2006 interview by Sam Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle, posted on’s Marine Corps Forum. "To me, that says support the troops until they come home, or until their politics or their religion differs from yours."

As Hurwitt noted, Key’s play includes a clip on a large screen of “a Paula Zahn interview on CNN in which Key (who joined the service in 2000 at age 34) came out as a gay Marine against the war, and quotes a letter to his commanding officer in which he declares that the same principles that led him to join the Marines prevent him from silently going along with the military's discriminatory policy toward gays.”

The unexpected bombshell of the performance follows a penultimate scene in which this seemly model Marine slowly takes off his medal-bedecked blue dress uniform and lays it out as though for a funeral. Donning blue jeans and picking up a trumpet, Key states that when a fellow Marine convoy driver he eulogized earlier in the play died in Iraq there were fewer than 900 U.S. war deaths; yet now the number of military fatalities from Iraq and Afghanistan is more than 6,000.

Crisply raising the trumpet, Jeff Key plays the haunting notes of “Taps” as photo after photo after photo of soldiers’ grave markers flash on the screen.

“The Eyes of Babylon” show at 59E59 Theaters runs through July 3.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Lasting Lesson in Courage

photo/Library of Congress
In the spring of 1961, as I impatiently awaited graduation from high school, the news of the world was a blur to me. Unless there was a war zone or rumor of war involved, I paid little attention. So I don’t recall being aware of one of the big events of the time—the Freedom Riders challenge of racial color barriers in Southern states.

Keenly aware that the American Civil War started 100 years before, in April 1861, I was seeking my own battlefield glory in a war somewhere. So I scarcely gave a thought to the courage displayed by strangers risking life and limb to expand civil rights to “colored people,” as African-Americans were widely called at the time. Like most Americans, I think, I hadn’t a clue what “nonviolent civil disobedience” meant.

As a recent PBS special, “Freedom Riders,” graphically shows, the black and white volunteers who nonviolently sought to integrate long-distance buses and public restrooms and restaurants at transportation stations in the Deep South in 1961 were beaten by mobs of angry white men, arrested by local police and jailed by state officials. After a Greyhound bus that carried Freedom Riders was firebombed in Alabama and riders beaten at several stops, more than 300 civil rights riders were arrested and thrown into a Mississippi state prison, and a biracial group of 10 clergymen from the North were arrested for trying to eat together in an airport restaurant in Florida, the federal government stepped in and began enforcing non-discrimination laws that had been ignored for generations.

“Nothing would deter these Freedom Riders - not beatings, not burnings, not racist mobs,” noted Gregory Kane, the conservative Republican columnist, in a recent tribute to the men and women who mounted a nonviolent campaign to accomplish what Civil War battles and other clashes over the course of a century could not.

I got some insight into the impact of the Freedom Riders campaign when I was stationed at Ft. Rucker, Alabama some three years after these events. The focus of the civil rights movement had shifted to Selma, Alabama, where bloody confrontations with local and state police over marches for voting rights made national television news coverage.

Amid training for waging war via helicopters in Vietnam, the infantry unit I was assigned to was put on alert to be ready to assert the federal government’s role in upholding the US Constitution in Alabama. Old-timers in the unit joked about having gotten campaign medals for being dispatched in previous years to Little Rock, Arkansas and other Southern flash points where furious white residents and their local officials tried to prevent "colored people" from attending segregated public schools and colleges.

Having already served a tour in Vietnam, and declined a promotion to stay in the military and return to the war in Indochina that seemed wantonly senseless, I signed up for classes at a base branch of a nearby state college while awaiting my discharge papers. It was there that I met a professor who astounded the globe-trotting, way-of-the-world-savvy soldiers in his psychology class.

The professor noted that he had been teaching at a famous university up North and decided to come back to teach in his home state. “Why?” a seasoned sergeant blurted out.

Alabama in the winter of 1964-65 exuded the tensions of a third world country rumbling with pent-up hostilities between authorities and an emboldened group of natives protesting a culture of violent oppression. My brother was in Air Force training at another base in Alabama and got caught up in a police action in the state capitol, Montgomery, against a civil rights protest. The off-duty GIs hit the ground and hunkered behind cars while cops with fingers on their triggers roamed the streets and screamed at the Air Force boys to get the hell out of town.

Well, the civilian professor quietly said to his class of soldiers, this is where the fight is to change my part of the country for the better. He came back to teach, at Troy State College, he said, to help fellow white Southerners understand it was time to change their minds, their culture, their psychology, when it came to their fellow citizens who happened to have a darker hue.

Some day, I’ll remember that professor’s name. What I thought at the time was, that man just displayed more courage on behalf of other people’s welfare than I’d seen in an army lording it over people of another race while playing war on the far side of the world.

As for the civil rights protesters battered by state and local police in Selma, Alabama: On their third attempt to march to the state capitol, on March 21, 1965, the route was impressively lined by thousands of U.S. Army troops, National Guard members called up by the federal government, FBI agents and federal marshals, arrayed to protect 300 marchers. Some 25,000 people joined the last leg to the state capitol building for a rally for voting rights for black Americans.

That night, a white woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed while driving marchers back to Selma. The ambushers were Ku Klux Klan members who included an FBI informer. That roadside murder effectively was the last shot of the Civil War. The Selma to Montgomery march through Alabama stirred Americans to turn a big page of history.

“As a result of this historic event, the [federal] Voting Rights Act was passed on May 26, 1965,” notes a brief history on the National Park Service website for the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Deep in the heart of Alabama, the majority of Selma’s city council today is African-American, as is Mayor George Patrick Evans, a graduate of Troy State University.

As my old professor in Alabama said, this was a timely fight—and it took more courage to do it nonviolently in the face of brutal encounters with police and hate-filled mobs. Yet the legacy for human dignity spurred by the Freedom Riders is far more enduring than the official slogans shading the violence unleashed in Vietnam in the name of democratic rights many Americans were denied and had to fight for at home.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

“Poster Girl” Draws Crowd

Robynn Murray (photo/Stefan Neustadter)
“Poster Girl,” the 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary, drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people in a recent showing at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ. The June 1 event also included a discussion with director Sara Nesson and Robynn Murray, the Iraq war veteran whose story is the focus of the film, which stirred a flurry of questions from the audience.

The 38-minute film unveils the life of a high-school cheerleader from Niagara Falls, NY who enlisted in the Army and ended up on combat patrols in Iraq, becoming a “poster girl” for women at war featured on an “Army Magazine” cover. Back home, Sgt. Murray battled the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries.

Shot and directed by filmmaker Sara Nesson, the film focuses on a veteran’s home front journey of anguish, rage and renewal. In hand-held camera shots, it shows her frustration in seeking Veterans Affairs aid, including her medical records being lost at the Buffalo VA office. In a creative turn of events, the camera closely follows Murray as she moves from kicking car doors and punching walls to working out her own healing regime of art and poetry, symbolic displays of tattoos and feisty public speeches to lance festering war memories.

An unexpected setback, highlighted in the film, is VA medical treatments that subject veterans to astonishing amounts of medication. Murray said this caused more health problems, including addiction to morphine after surgery to repair a back injury.

“I was on 14 medications at one time, from the VA!” Murray told the Puffin audience. While some VA doctors and treatments were helpful, she said, a better approach to sustained healing was getting involved with art and writing projects sponsored by veterans groups, educational institutions and cultural centers.

“I’m doing much better now,” Murray said. “My getting involved with Combat Paper [art projects] and Warrior Writers changed my relationship with my healing. No longer was it something that happened to me. It was something that I owned.” Murray added that she discovered the writing and arts projects through involvement with Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Nesson encountered Murray at a Warrior Writers workshop on Cape Cod while making a documentary on veterans turning war memories into art. "Poster Girl" has been showcased at a number of film festivals and was selected by HBO for a cable TV run in the fall.

The showing at Puffin was cosponsored by Veterans For Peace, Chapter 21 NJ; Military Families Speak Out, Bergen County; Teaneck Peace Vigil, Bergen Grassroots, Central Unitarian Church Social Action Team, Leonia Peace Vigil Group, Bergen County Green Party, Rockland Coalition for Peace and Justice, Haiti Solidarity Network of the North East, NJ Peace Action, and People's Organization for Progress, Bergen County Branch.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

After Memorial Day

Eli Wright (photo/Warrior Writers)

What do Americans do the day after Memorial Day? Move on, mostly, into the swing of summer, the resumption of daily routines uninterrupted by badgering advertisements for holiday sales and blaring reminders to commemorate the war dead.

So the crowd was sparse the day after Memorial Day at the Veterans’ Voices poetry reading at Poets House in New York City. Barely a couple of dozen Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and a handful of supporters mustered on a sultry evening in a glass-walled meeting room off River Terrace near the former site of the World Trade Center towers. The event was billed as “The Day After: Poetry by Veterans for Memorial Day and Every Day.”

Not a politician or a chaplain or a flag-waving color guard was in sight when former Army medic Eli Wright strode to the podium and said: “I’ve been kind of avoiding Memorial Day for a long time.” Wright, who served in Iraq in 2003-2004 with the 1st Infantry Division, proceeded to relate a story about an Army buddy who killed himself after coming home.

“Hey Johnny... I really miss you man... the day I found out you died was the same day I found out I was going to have a child,” Wright said. “They used us, brother, forced us to help them abuse the ‘others’…So we both became trapped in the prison cells of our own selves…We went over there as boys and came back broken men… I just wish that I had a tourniquet that could have stopped your soul from bleeding out…"

“Johnny was just one of thousands who are not on any memorial,” Wright concluded.

Losses not recorded on war memorials was a major theme of the evening. Attired in a dark T-shirt emblazoned “War Is Trauma,” Carlos Harris read a stream-of-consciousness poem about preparing to visit a friend about to deploy to Afghanistan, his own war experiences popping up like explosive forebodings. “I’m frightened for the friend, Jesse, I’ll have when he returns—if he returns,” Harris said.

“You’re in the Army? Really? You don’t look like you’re in the Army,” related Kristina Shevory, an eight-year veteran of peacetime posts, sarcastically recounting how her military service was frequently questioned and belittled by fellow Americans. “So what do you think a soldier looks like?” Shevory replied. Such widespread disdain for women in the military dampened her sense of pride in public service. Now, she said, “I’m also asking myself what it means to be a veteran.”

Alex Miller noted other ways the home front is frightening, bewildering. He described scary walks, on hyper-alert as on a combat patrol, from the subway at his stop in Brooklyn amid memories of growing up in a rough Chicago neighborhood where families were often shattered by drive-by, drug-related shootings. “The real war is at home … The bullet with death on its mind, aimed at no one hit everyone,” he said. And then the kicker for a soldier who risked his life for a chance at a better life: “How can I be a homeless veteran at 24?”

Robynn Murray prefaced a set of gut-punching poems by noting that she was 20 years old when she returned from a combat deployment in Iraq, angry at college students oblivious to the war that consumed her. “Friend, let me carry that burden for you—I could use some help, but you’re nowhere to be found” went the refrain of a poem about trying to find a friend who understood what she was going through and feeling “left behind” in civilian life.

“Warrior Writers saved my life. I really didn’t think there was anybody else like me,” said Murray, who was profiled in the 2011 Academy Award-nominated documentary, “Poster Girl.” The film shows her struggle to restore her sense of purpose through writing poetry, creating art works and giving blunt-spoken public presentations as part of the art-as-healing writing project sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Several other participants at the Poets House event credited writing and photography workshops sponsored by New York University’s Veteran Creative Writing Program and the NYU Military Alliance. They presented a slide show of photos from a recent exhibit titled “Seeing Here Now,” combined with poems that reflected on military scenes in one set of photos and, in turn, inspired a new round of photos of arresting scenes at home.

A photo of an immaculate wall of shower fixtures, for instance, inspired a prose poem by Army veteran James Dreiling titled “AWhite Lie,” in which a soldier tells his mother that these showers (exclusively for officers) were what enlisted men used in Afghanistan. This concocted story was meant to allay the mother’s fears that her son might be electrocuted by faulty wiring in a shower building, as she had heard in the news killed another soldier. The son tells us in the poem that he had bigger concerns. Dreiling, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, later noted that this story "was a work of fiction and I wrote it through a very cynical lens that occasionally pervades on certain long days overseas."

Robynn Murray noted that people at home are often clueless about the magnitude of memories war veterans carry around. “This Memorial Day, I was thinking about losses in my life,” she said in preface to a poem she’d jotted down on the subway ride to lower Manhattan. The poem recounted how she “helped a friend write an obituary for another friend who died in Iraq.” Drunk on drinks supplied by well-wishers honoring a man in uniform, the surviving friend jumped out of her car as she tried to drive him home. Stumbling to his own car, he raced off into the night until, she recalled, “he flipped his car six times.” Her war survivor friend ended up in a hospital, severely injured. “He acts about eight years old now,” she said.

Stanley Kunitz, a founder of Poets House and former US Poet Laureate, would surely have appreciated the significance of this low-key event as a solemn time for military veterans to share disturbing memories through their own writings. An Army veteran of World War II, Kunitz—who died in 2006 at age 100—spent most of his life promoting poetry as, he once said, a gift that is “life-sustaining, life-enhancing.”