Politics on stage: New play asks audiences not to look away from veterans in trouble

Theo Wilson as DeShawn Foster in a scene from "Honorable Disorder." (Photo by Celia Herrera, courtesy Emancipation Theater Company.)

A gospel song plays as a man in scraps of a uniform stands on a Denver stage staring at the audience. He’s wordless but for his cardboard sign:

“US vet. Anything helps.”

This opening scene of the new play “Honorable Disorder,” which runs through April 29 in Denver, plays on long enough for everyone in the audience to remember looking away from a veteran in distress.

Playwright Jeff Campbell has more uncomfortable moments ahead as he takes on some of the most fractious issues of our times.

Campbell — once hailed by Westword as among  “100 superstars from Denver’s rich creative community” — is known for asking challenging questions. In the one-time rapper’s 2013 show “Who Killed Jigaboo Jones?” it was whether racist stereotypes are inextricably and fatally woven into the hip hop scene. In his 2016 play  “Final Fight of the Freedom Fighters,” it was whether today’s social activists have learned the hard lessons of trailblazers like farm-labor leader Cesar Chavez and poet-activist Audre Lorde.

Today, it’s whether a nation that is sending to the war on terror a tiny percentage of its population — often poor, minority and immigrant recruits — can come together to both honor their service and ensure their future.

“They are a marginalized group comprised of marginalized groups. When they come home, are the communities they come from really honored and respected?” Campbell told Colorado Politics. “If you can’t respect a person who put their life on the line and endured what they endured, no matter who they are … then you don’t respect those who take ownership and responsibility for the freedoms you enjoy every day.”

The corner of American to which Campbell’s main character, an African-American vet named DeShawn Foster (played by Theo Wilson, who is the son of a Vietnam vet, grandson of a Tuskegee airman and great-grandson of a World War I fighter), returns from Iraq is Denver’s Five Points, under pressure from gentrification.

It’s the neighborhood where the play premiered at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance theater, drawing an audience that made clear in its cheers and jeers that it identified with the characters and their dilemmas.

Performances of the play — presented by Campbell’s Emancipation Theater Company — are scheduled every weekend in April, with the last set for April 29.

Campbell said he wants to inspire his viewers to have difficult conversations with “their friends. Their peers. Strangers. Vets.”

But it is theater: “I also want them to have fun and enjoy themselves.”

He provides the comic relief himself, taking on the role of Bernard Foster, DeShawn’s Uncle B, a wise fool who owes more than a little to Spike Lee’s Mookie in “Do the Right Thing.” Campbell also produced and directed “Honorable Disorder.”

Campbell said that while he has relatives who are veterans, he had never served in the military himself and was, like many Americans, disconnected from the war on terror.

For a survey marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Pew Research Center interviewers spoke to 1,853 veterans, among them 712 who served after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and to 2,003 adult non-vets. More than eight in 10 veterans of the war on terror told the researchers they believed the general public “has little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face.” Among the non-vets, 71 percent agreed.

“Since 1973, there has been no military draft. So unlike other U.S. wars waged in the past century, the post-9/11 conflicts have been fought exclusively by a professional military and enlisted volunteers. During this decade of sustained warfare, only about 0.5 percent of the American public has been on active (military) duty at any given time,” the resulting Pew report noted. It went on to say that at the height of World War II, the comparable figure was nearly 9 percent.

Campbell began to close his personal divide in 2016, when he left Denver for the small Georgia town of Griffin. Burned out on the arts, he went to work as a digital media specialist for a nonprofit that supported veterans and was founded by a a retired Army master sergeant, Sandra Brownlee.

As he interviewed vets to help Brownlee tell their stories, Campbell’s eyes were opened to the reality of ailments like PTSD and to the bureaucratic barriers and communications failures that often make it difficult for veterans to get the financial, medical and other benefits they are owed. Campbell also found himself inspired by the patriotism, compassion and ingenuity he found among Brownlee and so many others who had served.

Brownlee  “taught me a lot,” Campbell said. “She taught me what I know about this.”

Brownlee joined the Army right after high school and served 27 years, including a deployment as a medic in the 1990s Gulf War. She remembers feeling depressed and directionless after retirement in 2007, until she started pouring energy into what became a volunteer-run center in Griffin where she connects vets to counseling, employment, housing and other services.

“If you can’t relate to where a soldier’s been, it makes it harder for them to open up to you and tell you what they need,” Brownlee told Colorado Politics.

Civilians nonetheless have a role, she said. She pointed to local leaders who offered her space for her center in an old county courthouse, businessmen who helped her renovate the building, church members who send monthly checks to cover utilities.

Brownlee also talks with politicians and policy makers about such issues as the plight of members of the military who receive “other than honorable” discharges for conduct that is sometimes linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. The catch-22 is that the other than honorable discharges, sometimes called bad paper, can make it difficult for vets to get the therapy they need.

The most recent spending bill passed in Washington includes a provision requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to provide initial mental health assessments and services to veterans with bad paper and take other steps to ensure men and women who are suffering after serving are not abandoned.

Brownlee told Colorado Politics that she is honored to have inspired Campbell’s play and that she hopes it will inspire those who see it to talk with veterans about collaborating to solve problems. In Griffin, veterans and those who never served have worked together to help former fighters get housing, jobs and become part of the community.

“That’s how it should be,” she said.

While he set his play in Denver, Campbell based his characters and their character on Brownlee, other vets he met in Georgia and other vets he has known.

On opening night, audience members laughed at Uncle B and mocked a white Five Points newcomer’s fearful reaction to her black neighbors. At post-performance talk-backs, audience members confess to tearing up at other moments.

They listened in a respectful hush when Justin MacDonald, the homeless vet who had opened the show, eventually breaks his silence to deliver a monologue during which he makes clear he does not believe he deserved to survive when so many comrades did not.

Justin, who is white, fought alongside DeShawn and the two have an important bond. DeShawn struggles to persuade his buddy to believe in something, if only because they are both “still here.”

Corey Rhoads, the actor who plays Justin, is a military veteran. He told Colorado Politics the play offers moments of empathy and connection.

Rhoads served in the Navy in the early 2000s on a ship that assisted with anti-drug trafficking efforts in the South Pacific and humanitarian missions along Africa’s coasts. He said performing in “Honorable Discharge” has helped him understand the different experiences of combat veterans and can help audiences understand that not all military stories are the same. Sharing stories is crucial to bridging American divides, he said.

“What I’m seeing in society right now is that we’re really fractured and we’re really struggling to have conversations,” Rhoads said. “Where are we as a society that even asking to have a conversation is asking a lot?”

When Campbell left for Georgia he was considering abandoning the arts. He returned determined to tell stories with a purpose. “Honorable Disorder” is the first of what he hopes will be many plays under the auspices of the Emancipation Theater Company, which he founded last year.

Emancipation Theater is dedicated to giving a “voice to the disenfranchised citizens on the small stage and empowering them with a platform to engage the greater community.” Audiences at “Honorable Disorder” learn from programs splashed with images of a tattered American flag and statistics on the trauma, homelessness, suicide and other ills that veterans face in disproportionate numbers.

“I’m just a playwright,” Campbell told Colorado Politics. “I’m not going to solve the world’s problems. But if I can see it needs to change, then policy makers, legislators, businesspeople who have far more tools and power than myself can see this.

“We just need to have the compassion to take action.”

“Honorable Disorder” — Details

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