His father trained at Montford Point, North Carolina, my mother at Cherry Point. Geographically, the two camps were in close proximity. Racially, they were worlds apart. This play highlights that divide. In 1942, FDR issued a presidential directive giving African Americans the opportunity to enlist in the U. S. Marine Corps. These men received their training at the segregated Montford Point facility. (It was not until 1948 that the U.S. military was integrated by executive order of President Truman.) It is a stirring moment in the play when FDR (Whit Reichert) delivers the historical directive which sets the story in motion.
The protagonist, Marine Corporal Robert Charles Wilson, is based on the playwright’s father. The story intertwines Wilson’s military career with his family life. He admits that he joined the Marines to demonstrate his toughness and attract women. Voila! He catches the eye of Gwendolyn James (Linda Kennedy), a stunning local woman. Gwendolyn is a refined, “high-falutin’” English teacher, although a country girl at heart. She and Wilson fall passionately in love. They marry shortly before he is shipped out. Prior to his enlistment, he has been classically trained as an opera singer.
Actor J. Samuel Davis deftly portrays this multifaceted man. Everyone seems to orbit around him. As always, Davis brings to his role, vitality, articulation and perfect timing. He also brings a beautiful baritone voice. Wilson’s appeal is based on his courage, self-confidence, and sense of humor. His triumph over adversity is often accompanied by ironic observations, not an easy task, especially when serving under the command of a bigoted white office (Whit Reichert). Wilson explains that the U.S. government is reluctant to give weapons to black soldiers fighting at Iwo Jima. Hello! They are battling Japanese warriors. Wilson demonstrates that “pride is the greatest weapon of all”. Still, he finds it useful to hang on to his flamethrower. He experiences the horrors of war that haunt him for years, eventually earning a Purple Heart for a shoulder injury.
The play is set in Philadelphia, July 1993 on the 50th anniversary of Wilson’s enlistment. Wilson has maintained the body and spirit of a leatherneck. Davis is a hunk and a half in his form fitting blue T-shirt. When his middle-aged son, R.C. (Chauncy Thomas) visits, it’s evident that Junior idolizes his father. “You’re my hero,” he often reminds his dad. Thomas demonstrates enthusiasm and compassion as the Wilson’s only child. He seems to have no bitterness over his parents’ separation long ago.
Gwendolyn appears in flashbacks as the adoring newlywed, the comforting post-war spouse and the long estranged wife who travels to Philadelphia with a surprise for Robert’s 50th anniversary celebration. Flashbacks evoke a range of emotions. There is discord when Gwendolyn’s insists on continuing a career in her home town while her husband wishes to move the family north to pursue a singing career. Still, there is little sturm und drang over the separation.
The set (Jim Burwinkel) is dominated by Wilson’s immaculate living room. With WWII photos and memorabilia prominently on display, the house is a veritable Montford Point Marine museum; however, the centerpiece photo, the iconic image of six marines raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, includes no African-American soldiers. David Warfel’s stunning lighting effects intensify various dramatized incidents. The Iwo Jima battle scenes are bathed in blood red.
The play is an unabashed tribute to the playwright’s father and the Montford Point Marines. Fair enough, but it is also a theatrical production. Act I is compelling. Act II is far too long. I know how painful it is to cut material that is deeply personal, but sentimentality can disrupt dramatic flow and dilute the desired effect. After the melodic climax peaks, it plateaus at length, undercutting the climax.
Also, Williams spells everything out for the audience, leaving little to our imagination. That deprives us of the pleasure of putting together pieces of the puzzle. (In fairness, the play is more of a character piece than a traditional drama.) Still, it’s a powerful story that rightly celebrates an unsung segment of American military heroes. The acting is first-rate and the play is skillfully directed by Ron Himes, the Black Rep’s founder and artistic director. This is the fourth play of Samm-Art Williams produced by the company. I especially enjoyed Home, the Musical and I’d love to see it revived.
The Montford Point Marine runs through June 26, 2011 at the Grandel Theatre located @ 3610 Grandel Sq. Information is available at www.stlouisblackrep.org or by calling 314-534-3810.
NOTE: for more info on the Montfort Point Marines, visit http://www.montfordpointmarines.com/