By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
Breath of Fire’s latest taps into some fascinating, seldom-told stories
Mel Nieves’ play W.A.C. Iraq . . . A Work In Progress is a work in progress on two levels: It’s a world premiere, and its subject—women directly involved in America’s combat in Iraq—isn’t fading any time soon. While fixing the more complicated of those jobs is beyond even the expertise of this space, here are four points of advice for Nieves:
• Use the delete key. W.A.C. Iraq is a series of monologues or two-person scenes that, by their very nature, are static. Nothing much happens except lips flapping. And the more superfluous the flapping, the harder it is for the audience to invest in the terrible reality these female characters struggle against: involvement in that most masculine of activities, waging war. We care about these characters when we understand what they’re confronting, what led them to Iraq in the first place and what makes them truly unique. Their preference for chocolate-chip cookies and other unessential details feel like fat around their stories’ heartbeats, a problem in a play all about broken, challenged hearts. Trim the excess, and those heartbeats might be heard more clearly.
• Don’t touch the two best monologues. While most of the women are American G.I.s or their family members, the two most intriguing are anything but: a devout Iraqi Muslim who questions America’s involvement in Iraq, and another devout Muslim, a Kurd, who has agreed to become a U.S. soldier in order to jump-start her devastated life. These are seldom-told, intensely fascinating stories and the highlights of the piece.
• Take a look at the characters’ backstories. Three of the women have very similar sagas: Latinas from broken or poor families who enlist in order to either learn a trade or go to college after their service. While these are very salient points—and a great rejoinder to those who ridicule the concept of supporting the troops on grounds that these people chose their situation, so fuck them—these characters’ stories don’t seem that distinctive. Not every woman who joins the military does so out of desperation, does she? Aren’t there some from more affluent families who make the decision? Or some young women who have numerous options but choose the military out of a sense of duty or tradition? Bring in a more diverse array of women, and the play could feel even more resonant.
• Keep believing in the play. As it stands, W.A.C. Iraq is a little long, a little rough around the edges, and a little boring in those stretches when it feels like pages written from a soldier’s diary rather than testimonials from people caught in the epicenter of hell. But there is definitely merit to this play, as well as some heart-tugging moments of poignancy (a mother says it took her seven minutes to deliver her daughter; it took seven days for her daughter’s body to be shipped back home in a box).
Its most laudable characteristic is that it’s not simple agitprop. While there are plenty of anti-war knocks (one G.I. is determined to return home and speak out against the war), most of the characters realize this is a job and, regardless of policy, part of that job is to bring hope to Iraq’s beleaguered citizenry, particularly the children.
Outside of U.S. military recruiters, who come off as mercenary, red-white-and-blue-tinged snake-oil peddlers, the great evil in this play isn’t a nation or a policy, but war itself. Nieves skillfully avoids turning a divisive, emotionally charged subject into overt propaganda, focusing instead on the struggles and hopes of his female protagonists. A bit more work on narrowing that focus by distilling the most interesting parts of their stories, and Nieves’ title can lose the work-in-progress addendum, even if its subject, sadly, doesn’t.
W.A.C. Iraq . . . A Work In Progress at the Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, 310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 540-1157; www.breathoffire.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Oct. 11. $10-$15.