Just in time for Veterans Day, the Actors’ Warehouse offers a stage production in which five Gainesville area residents — none with formal acting experience — share their heartfelt military experiences.
Every soldier returning home from war has a story to tell. Andrew Moore will tell you about attending 20 memorial services in three weeks for fallen comrades in Iraq. Victor Lopez will tell you how he was scared of being shot in Afghanistan. Rafe Johnson will tell you about the racism he encountered serving his country in the Navy. Scott Camil will tell you how he defended his country with honor in Vietnam only to feel betrayed by that same nation upon his return home.
Now, all Gainesville has to do is sit. And listen.
The four U.S. war veterans, along with former military wife Sue Dudley, will be on stage sharing their stories beginning this week in Telling Gainesville: A Soldier’s Narrative of War, a series of performances at the Actors’ Warehouse, 608 N. Main St.
There will be a preview performance Thursday night at 8. Opening night is Friday. Five additional performances will take place over the next two weekends. Free tickets are available by reserving them on the Actors’ Warehouse website. (Only Friday night’s performance is sold out so far. Seating is limited.)
Each two-hour performance will conclude with a discussion moderated by Dr. Paul Ortiz, director of the award-winning Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF.
Presented by the UF Center for Arts in Medicine and the UF Center for European Studies, Telling Gainesville is the latest effort of The Telling Project. The national organization uses theater to further the understanding of the military and veterans’ experience.
Moore, 39, from Williston, was an Army staff sergeant with two tours of duty in Iraq more than a decade ago. He said that Telling Gainesville is an opportunity for people “to listen to our stories and hopefully relate to us in some way.”
According to The Telling Project, a greater understanding fosters receptivity and eases veterans’ transitions back to civil society. In turn, communities benefit from the skills and experience they bring with them.
“I believe in the power of narrative and storytelling,” said Jeffrey Pufahl, producer and director of Telling Gainesville. “This is an opportunity for the community to understand the experiences of being a veteran.”
Pufahl teaches acting at Santa Fe College and is a full-time faculty member in UF Arts in Medicine. After a month of rehearsals and getting to know his five performers better, Pufahl can’t wait for Telling Gainesville to open.
“This is a gift they are each giving to the Gainesville community. It’s very courageous. It’s very raw,” he said. “People are going to be deeply moved by the performance.”
Telling Gainesville is not a flashy stage production. The performers sit in five folding chairs with a backdrop of black-and-white images selected and arranged by photographer Charlotte Kesl. Each of the performers is represented by either a photo or, in Johnson’s case, a poster of Uncle Sam.
Singer/songwriter Michael Claytor enhances the performance with a continuous guitar solo that includes music chosen by the performers, Pufahl and himself.
The five performers were chosen from an open casting call over the summer seeking military veterans. Dudley was invited to join the cast because of her unique perspective.
Each participant then sat down for interviews with Max Rayneard, co-creator of The Telling Project. Rayneard took their oral stories and weaved them into a script. Rayneard said the stories are authentic, not heightened for dramatic effect.
“It has to be the story each one wants to tell,” he said. “It’s theirs, not mine.”
The early part of Telling Gainesville has some theatrical elements, with performers moving around the stage and interacting with each other. The four veterans recite their oaths, stand at attention and march in place to help establish time and place.
Later, the performers take turns standing up, stepping forward and addressing the audience. Sometimes there is hesitation in their voices.
“There are implicit risks involved, but it makes the storytelling all the more real,” Rayneard said. “There’s more courage and candor. The stakes are higher.”
Lopez, 28, shares stories about his stint in Afghanistan and being assigned to an FOB (Forward Operating Base) near the Pakistan border. The sounds of explosions were a constant reminder of how fragile human life is. He only returned home in 2012.
“Coming back, I wasn’t the same person,” he said. “I wasn’t suicidal. I just needed direction. The only reason I left the military was to be with my daughter.”
Camil, 70, served in Vietnam a half-century ago in a Marines artillery unit known as Alpha North. He recalled one day in 1966 when he was on top of a bunker and “everything started blowing up everywhere.”
When he later wandered among bodies of fellow soldiers covered with ponchos, “I thought, ‘War is not going to be as much fun as I expected.'”
Camil spent 600 days in Vietnam. (“We measured our success by body count,” he said.) He earned two Purple Hearts and a number of other medals before being honorably discharged in 1969.
Leaving the Marine Corps and then witnessing the antiwar movement back on U.S. soil was disheartening — but also eye-opening. An impassioned speech by actress/activist Jane Fonda at UF’s Graham Pond was a turning point for him.
Soon, Camil became an activist himself, helping to start a local Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapter. In 1973, Camil and other antiwar activists known collectively as the Gainesville Eight went on trial on charges of conspiring to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. All were acquitted.
In a classified memo to his Jacksonville office, then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover described Camil as an “extremely dangerous and unstable individual whose activities must be neutralized at earliest possible time.” In 1974, federal agents shot Camil during a drug-entrapment sting. He survived the injuries, as he had survived his battle wounds in Vietnam.
In Telling Gainesville, Camil shares his story with the audience.
About the time Camil was starting to speak out against the war, Rafe Johnson was graduating from Gainesville High in 1971 and joining the Navy. Soon he was out at sea on an aircraft carrier. As a young black man, he endured ongoing incidents of racism.
“In the Navy, I couldn’t get away from the racist people. I was in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “Everyday they were going to taunt me.”
In the four decades since then, Johnson has had an up-and-down life, including time in prison for selling marijuana. Now 64 and retired, he spends his time writing, fishing and taking care of his 8-year-old son.
Racism, however, still exists.
“I think society has to have a wake-up call,” Johnson said. “The practices of the past have to stay in the past.”
Sue Dudley doesn’t share war stories with the Telling Gainesville audience, but her experiences as a military wife offer insight into the sacrifices she made to support her husband, an Air Force pilot, and their three children. She moved at least a dozen times, from Newfoundland to bases around the U.S. and all the way across the Pacific.
“In Okinawa, every time I dug a flowerbed, I had to call the bomb squad for them to remove something!” she said.
An enlarged photo used for the play’s backdrop shows a bundled-up Dudley standing in front of a Quonset hut in Stephenville, Newfoundland. Taken in 1961, Dudley is holding her youngest son, Kevin. Daugher Becky and older son Wendell are in the foreground.
“I was the best Air Force wife I could be,” said Dudley, who has written her memoirs about those years, titled “On The Road Again,” which she will self-publish.
As a military wife, Dudley put off college a few years. In 2003, at the age of 68, she graduated from UF with a bachelor’s degree in Environment, Economics and Policy. Now 81, she volunteers as publicist for the Friends of the Library.
She admits that her stories in Telling Gainesville are considerably lighter than those of the veterans with whom she shares the stage.
“Hearing the other stories, and getting to know the guys, if just a little, is something I will always treasure,” she said. “It has reinforced my personal feelings about how wonderful the military family is.”
Since 2008, The Telling Project has produced more than 40 original performances, put over 180 veterans and family members on stage and performed in 16 states across the nation. The Florida Council on the Humanities has also helped fund Telling Project stories in Tampa, Orlando, Pensacola and, soon, Fort Lauderdale.
— Noel Leroux
For further info on the cast, visit the Florida Humanities Council website.
For further info, visit the The Telling Project website.