Mutiny at Port Chicago is a dramatic play about the worst military disaster seen on American soil. The setting: San Francisco Bay, July 1944, the nation is heavily engaged in WWII and Blacks has shatter the glass ceiling within the Navy, graduating in status from cooks and porters to the class of Seamen. Unfortunately, the advancement of status within the military was largely symbolic. Black sailors where used for manual labor, the Navy’s way of getting around the cost of using trained union workers for such labor.
The African American Seamen of Port Chicago were used to load munitions onto ship, and tasked to do so without any specialized training or experience. They were also often tasked with working with faulty equipment. The play recounts how officers would make bets amongst themselves as to who could load carriers the fastest. Seaman Edward Little (J. Teddy Garces), the most respected and well liked of the Black Seamen expressed safety concerns many times; the officers basically lied, saying that the ammunition was not live.
And the unthinkable happens. “Everything within a one mile radius was destroyed”. More than 300 people were killed and more than 400 were injured. Black Seamen were tasked with collecting the remains of the dead, and with returning to their duty of loading ammunition onto warships. In mass they refused. Ultimately, fifty men were charged with mutiny for refusing to go back to work. Among the seamen who stood fast and did not return to the same dangerous conditions were Little and fellow Seaman Summerville (Durant Fowler), Long John (Eric Bivens-Bush) and Sylvester (Pedro Coiscou).
JAG Lawyer Lt. Gerald Veltman (Maury Sterling) is tasked with defending the 50 seamen in trial for mutiny. And he quickly sees that the charge of mutiny is a judgment of their race far more than it is of their actions.
Like most plays based on actually events, the first act is burdened with exposition of the historical context and circumstances, which fragment the dramatic rhythm of the piece. While the Ruskin is a fine space, ultimately its size fights the success of a production that breaks the fourth wall so frequently. Even having said that, I feel the space could have been used more. Somehow, this enormous story just did not fill the space. The plot unfolds in snapshot moments. Perhaps this structural device was intended to convey the passage of time, but I'm afraid I did not find it useless.
The second act faired a bit better with the stage set as courtroom and performers on stage the entire time. The sheer energy of people on stage wound up the tense that only ebbed and flowed without great impact in the previous act.
Like most stories with a cornerstone of examining the historical radial injustices inour nation, this was a tale of victims and pursecutors. The roles were very much a representations of historical fact, rather than people I came to know during the course of the story. For me, the script was simply too black and white. (Please forgive the pun.) There is something lacking in this production that I don’t think it was missing in the performances. Emotion without identity.
I just feel the meat of who these men were was missing. I wanted to know these men, not just what happened to them. If we knew where they came from and what they were truly sacrificing by standing their ground... If we knew who these men were beyond the uniform, this play would better convey that this is a tragedy that happened to real people - versus, the Black Seamen. There were glimpses of real people, but only enough to evoke a cursory feeling of pity. Both Garces and Fowler were doing such beautiful work, I wanted to see more.
The World Premiere of Mutiny at Port Chicago is running now through August 15, 2009 at:
Ruskin Group Theatre
3000 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405
For Tickets information call: 310-397-3244