Naming the dead, without dread

It was more a firing line than a Vietnam skirmish. Assembled in a fairly straight line of chairs placed side by side, the seven of us sat facing an actual live audience — awaiting their reaction while trying not to anticipate it.

I spent last Friday and Saturday night engaged in this ritual. Our goal was to interpret an emerging script from a new playwright, giving voice to the silent words. And as the author, Buzz Sienknecht, sat in the audience, listening, his characters made their presence known.

My role was “Specialist Bone,” the weary medic assigned to patch up the injured soldiers arriving at B Med, Landing Zone English, Vietnam, early seventies. The rest of the cast: Jack Harkleroad as Smith (Green Beret heroin addict), Becki Jordan as Madame Dzu (provider of laundry and heroin services) and reader of stage directions, Andy Harris as Fat Cat Johnson (short-timer, enlisted, addict), Chris as Colonel Whitelaw (career Army, unit commander), Randy as both Rodriguez (crumbling sergeant) and Colonel Dzu (ARVN “ally”), and Gene Bartoo as Dr. Danny Lazarus (the new guy, the philosophical sort with no stomach for war).

We spent four evenings rehearsing by reading over the play, with Tom Conway directing and Buzz (the playwright) observing, occasionally explaining. As a “staged reading,” this form of theatre is intended to benefit the author of the play by demonstrating how the words flow (or fail to flow) together, creating (or failing to create) that dicey encounter termed the “suspension of disbelief.” As the actors, we didn’t have to worry about any stage movement or blocking (other than standing before delivering lines, and sitting when exiting a scene). The focus is on the content, the words, the essence of the play.

On Friday night, we performed “The Names of the Dead” in front of some sixty people in a studio at the Chattanooga Theatre Center. Their reaction often surprised us throughout the reading; at times I believed I could sense their intensity during the dramatic scenes as well as I could hear their chuckles during the lighter moments. Afterwards, there were favorable comments from a half-dozen people about the play, especially in terms of how it impacted them. The consensus seemed to be that the script was successful in conveying its impressions of the Vietnam conflict and in creating interesting characters that try to survive in their own way. The Saturday night performance also attracted some fifty to sixty people, garnering more positive feedback about Buzz’s work.

Though certainly there was an element of rapid motion in this activity (my total involvement was nine days), I enjoyed the experience. Making sense out of a brand new script (though five years in the making)…playing a dramatic character for an attentive group…working with interesting people…gaining perspectives on the Vietnam experience: as Smith would say, “How’re you gonna act?” With some nervousness, I’d say; and a sense of satisfaction.



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