The solo performer revives his still-topical gays-in-the-military docudrama, Another American: Asking and Telling.
Mon Jul 12 2010
For every real-life character that Marc Wolf portrays in his explosive solo play Another American: Asking and Telling, he left out scores of others. But some of those stories about being gay and serving silently in the military remain potent now, more than ten years after he premiered the documentary piece. “There was one kid I interviewed who, when he was in boot camp, his boyfriend was murdered—civilian robbery—and he couldn’t grieve,” Wolf recalls at a Gramercy Park caf. “A lot of stories like that just aren’t in the play.”
No doubt hundreds more have sprung up in the years since Wolf, an actor who had been working in theater and television, added writer and solo performer to his rsum when he began talking to service members about gays in the military. At the time, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a recently instituted compromise of the Clinton administration, and the military had yet to be stretched to its limit by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wolf, 47, a native New Yorker with no military background, was inspired to revisit Another American when the topic came up earlier this year during President Obama’s State of the Union address. “I was kind of surprised that he mentioned it, and it really took off,” he notes. “And of course, the same debate took off: 'Gay people aren’t fit to serve, and they’re going to be having sex in the shower’ versus 'military people are bigots, and why can’t they handle it.’I think the farcical element of the whole situation is even more tragic and more funny now.”
So the Joe Mantello--directed Another American, which won Wolf an Obie Award in 2000 and played at regional theaters around the country, is back in New York for an eight-performance engagement at a time when the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military is facing challenges. A bill to repeal it passed the House and has gone to the Senate, and a suit challenging its constitutionality is set to go to trial in California.
Over the course of his show, Wolf channels 18 actual interviewees, gay and straight. The writer-actor displays impressive mimicry skills as he segues from an effeminate former Army private who served in combat in Vietnam (affectionately dubbed “Mary Alice” by the men in his bunker) to former Army sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom, the first service member reinstated (albeit briefly) after being discharged for sexual orientation. The sole civilian character, and arguably the show’s emotional apex, is the mother of 22-year-old gay Navy radioman Allen Schindler, who was beaten to death by two shipmates.
Not surprisingly, some of Wolf’s approximately 200 interview subjects, even those no longer serving, asked for anonymity, concerned that publicly revealing themselves could compromise careers, families or military benefits. “People were really scared,” Wolf recalls. “One time I was supposed to meet somebody in a caf and he walked in and goes, 'Why are you sitting by the window?’ He was really mad. Some people were like, 'Are you sure you haven’t been followed?’” To keep a low profile, Wolf didn’t stay more than three days in the places he traveled to for interviews. “I didn’t want the military to find out I was there,” he explains. “If somebody had been outed because of my interview process—that would have been awful, and it could have ended the play too.”
But not everyone in the LGBT community has applauded all aspects of the play. Wolf says he took some flack for a rather steamy monologue in which a Marine describes hooking up with a drill instructor because it plays to the fears of those who don’t think gays belong in the military. “This is not your PC version of gays in the military,” Wolf asserts. “I do want to talk about people having sex in the military. That’s part of the concern, how people are going to sleep next to each other. It’s what the antigay people are bringing up, so I need to bring it up.”
To complicate matters, some of Wolf’s subjects asked him not to use their stories after they were interviewed. Onstage, the omnipresent threat of career ruin is signaled by the tape recorder that sits on a table throughout. But that so many military folks trusted someone outside their ranks with their stories is a testament to how much they wanted their voices to be heard, and for Wolf the project was a revelatory experience.
“They are all people that affected me very powerfully and really challenged my own prejudices,” he says. “And their patriotism was refreshing. The gay people that I interviewed really believe in the American ideal of what our country could be. But that reality can’t happen for them, and they feel frustrated by that distance between the reality and the ideal.”
Another American: Asking and Telling is playing at DR2 through August 30.