Exposing “The Hero Within”

L-R: Judy Welch, Harold Boons, Ruben Thomas Jr., Jonaton Wyne, and Chris Thouart Curtis in The Hero Within (photo by Lynn Shane).

Opening night for The Hero Within is twenty-six hours away, and the production is in trouble. The day before the play opens at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is supposed to be reserved for a final dress rehearsal, but there simply isn’t time. Too much has been spent on adjusting lighting cues and smoothing out the wrinkles. One of the cast members is acting for the first time and is still flubbing lines, and the more experienced members of the cast occasionally stumble as well. Another actor spends precious time arguing about his lighting during a monologue. The lighting designer sounds noticeably exasperated when she addresses the cast. It seems like a recipe for disaster.

And yet somehow it works out. Twenty-six hours later, April 22, 8:00 p.m., The Hero Within finally emerges. The actors are more confident than they have ever sounded and the cues hit right on time. It is a miraculous revival borne of tenacity and determination.

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The Hero Within, a show starring military veterans, was directed by Greg Shane and written by the playwright Melvin Ishmael Johnson. Unlike a traditional play, though, Johnson was not the sole author of the work. During the audition period, seven veterans were selected for the play, and each told stories of the defining events of their time in the military. Johnson preserved these stories, working with the actors to craft them into theatrical monologues. He also wrote the ensemble scenes that bookend the play, as well as some connective parts between monologues, including a protest outside an induction center and a gunfight in the jungle. The purpose of The Hero Within is not just to give these veterans access to the world of theatre, but also to give them a voice and a platform

Part of what makes The Hero Within remarkable is the makeup of the cast: it is composed solely of African Americans (Shane is the only white person involved). That detail shouldn’t be shocking, as more than forty percent of the US military are non-white. But for civilians, perceptions of the military are largely shaped by news reports, television, and film, where soldiers of color are rarely represented. Although two black actors were cast in lead roles in Apocalypse Now (1979), war films made before and after it featured mostly lilywhite actors. One would be hard-pressed to find a dark-skinned soldier fighting alongside John Wayne on Iwo Jima, and most of the films addressing recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had actors with skin the color of the sand they tread upon. The play also has a mixed gender cast, with two women and five men.

L-R: Chris Thouart Curtis, Judy Welch, Harold Boons, and Jonaton Wyne in The Hero Within (photo by Lynn Shane).

The play began as a project of CRE Outreach, an organization that brings the performing arts to underserved and low-income individuals throughout Los Angeles. In the past, the organization has presented programs with the blind and visually-impaired, individuals with autism, at-risk youth, and military veterans. Shane, who co-founded the organization in 2003 and serves as its Artistic Director, also works on the Theater by the Blind program and is no stranger to the communities CRE Outreach serves. Blind in his right eye, Shane had to wear a patch on his remaining good eye for several years, effectively depriving him of his sight. “I have a sensitivity and an understanding to what it is to be blind,” he said in an interview after one of the play’s rehearsals.

One of the more compelling stories in the play comes from Judith Welch, who moved to Los Angeles and devoted herself to acting full-time after being discharged from the army. Her monologue begins with her birth in Buffalo, New York, to mixed-race biological parents. Welch had light-colored skin and blue eyes when she was born, and her mother intended to put her up for adoption to a white couple. But over time her skin and eyes darkened, and instead she was taken in by a foster family. Old photographs of a large and smiling family are projected on a screen behind Welch as she speaks. Years later she would finally meet her biological mother, but their encounter was short and strained. During her monologue, Welch speaks in a high-pitched squeak to quote her mother, who said this would be their only time to meet. Her current husband, a Polish man, wouldn’t be happy to learn that his wife had a black daughter.

While serving in the army, Welch suffered from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a catchall term encompassing everything from sexual harassment to sexual assault and rape, all of which can result in post-traumatic stress. Welch was harassed by a drill sergeant during training. He retaliated against her refusals by taking away her seniority after she failed to do the desired number of push-ups. “What’s more important for me? To tell the enemy ‘Stop! Watch me do thirteen push-ups!’ or blow their brains out?” she said in an interview at her home shortly before the play opened.

Later, Welch was harassed by a senior officer with a history of making lewd comments and creating a hostile work environment. Welch went over his head to report the abuse, but the officer was merely transferred, allowing him to terrorize a new group of women. The kind of harassment that Welch encountered in the military was not new at the time, and still exists in insidious ways today: earlier this year, news reports broke of a secret Facebook group in which nude photographs of female marines were shared without the consent of the women pictured. When reciting her story on stage, Welch seems less emotionally shell shocked than bitter. There is anger and dark humor in how she talks about her military experiences.

The African American cast of The Hero Within also allows for an exploration of the kinds of racial discrimination experienced during military service. Harold Boons, who was drafted during the tail end of the Vietnam War, served in the Air Force in Japan and Thailand. Boon had never travelled abroad before and relished the new experiences and new people. Thailand, in particular, was cheap, and it was easy to live there on his salary. But the discrimination he experienced back in the US would follow him across the globe.

The Hero Within dramatizes a scene in which Boon clashes with a newly-arrived supervisor. “I’m knowledgeable about my job, but then this guy comes around,” said Boon after a rehearsal. “He doesn’t really know anything—he’s there by rank to be the supervisor. Before, the previous supervisor had been the most knowledgeable person in that environment. But the new supervisor is not. He’s probably the least experienced.”

Boon, who grew up alternating between Texas and Los Angeles, had lived under the reign of Jim Crow policies and been inspired by the radical politics of the Black Panthers. While in the Air Force he joined a black soldiers’ organization, the Society of Black Unity. The armband its members wore caused tension with Boon’s new supervisor, a culturally conservative African American man from the Deep South. In retaliation for perceived insubordination, the supervisor began putting out a Confederate battle flag on a community desk in their shared office. Boon refused to work in the office as long as the flag was present. “Everything he represented was that oppression, that racist attitude, even though he was black,” said Boon. The two men came to blows over the racist display.

In The Hero Within, Boon’s story is initially staged as a monologue. He speaks with a laid-back drawl and excellent comedic timing. He draws hearty laughs from the audience after a story about teasing his cousin for getting drafted—shortly before he gets his own letter from Uncle Sam.

L-R: Jonaton Wyne and Ruben Thomas Jr. in The Hero Within (Photo by Lynn Shane).

When Boon tells the story of the Confederate flag, Jonaton Wyne steps on stage to play the supervisor. Wyne is the only member of the cast to have served in Vietnam, and the most experienced actor of the cast. He studied theatre arts in college, and one of his first film roles was a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). The part was small, but it was four months of work for him. Wyne is a dancer, and you can tell it from his stage presence—every step, every movement is graceful and intentional. He is in complete control of his body.

Wyne’s world was upended when a draft notice arrived in the mail. “Not that I wasn’t patriotic or anything, but I was doing the thing that I loved and this felt like something that came in and was robbing me of something that was dear to me,” said Wyne during an interview at his home. He was sent to Da Nang, one of the most turbulent areas in Vietnam, where he would sail boats down the river to deliver ammunition to infantry troops. Wyne was witness to incidents of racial strife while in country. On his first night in Vietnam he overheard white soldiers threatening to assault black soldiers. When he was transferred to a different part of the country he arrived in the wake of a race riot, where black and white soldiers had attacked each other with silverware in a mess hall.

African American soldiers were not the only people experiencing discrimination. Wyne befriended a South Vietnamese soldier who would accompany him on ammunition runs. Other Americans would hurl racial slurs at the man, but Wyne felt like he had developed a telepathic bond with him, even though they could barely speak each other’s language.

After returning to the US, Wyne would continue to work in film and theater, and he danced on tour for Nancy Sinatra. Although his body was unharmed, his mind was damaged from combat; he would spend years suffering from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before entering therapy, something he now thinks should be mandatory for all returning soldiers. Although Wyne is sometimes proud of his service when in the company of other veterans, his experiences in Vietnam convinced him that wars never solve anything.

Wyne is cool and collected when performing, even during rehearsals, and that calm is shared by the other actors on opening night. The nerves of the previous day are mostly gone. Monty Montgomery, an Iraq War veteran originally from Chicago, shines during one of the scenes as a drill sergeant, and his monologue has the audience in stitches. Ruben Thomas Jr. and Chris Thouart Curtis movingly share the experiences of young veterans who only recently left the military. Patricia Jackson-Kelley, who retired after 26 years as a Lieutenant Colonel, paints a picture of a time when female soldiers like her were still an anomaly.

The theater is nearly full for the first performance of The Hero Within. Some are family members who have probably heard these stories before. But most are not. Some of the actors get a noticeable amount of pleasure at finally telling these tales and sharing what they have kept hidden. Others have grimly determined looks on their faces, as if these painful stories must be revealed in order to heal.

For those of us in the audience, most of whom have never served in the armed forces and never will, The Hero Within is an opportunity to learn of these experiences and better understand the struggles of these veterans. The play will not erase their conflicted feelings about the military or their time in it. But it can unlock talents previously hidden away. Each veteran has become both an actor and a playwright now. They have gained the agency and power to tell their own stories. It is impossible to say exactly what a hero is, and the play wisely avoids trying to define it. But now these veterans have the tools to excavate within themselves and tell the stories so long buried.

To learn more about The Wallis, visit TheWallis.org.