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 Leatherneck.com’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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