Sunday, August 30, 2009

Magic happens when one's work starts to merge with the art-making of others ... .

Spent the afternoon in the audience of a new play inspired by WWII, Rosie the Riveter, and the home front stories. "Rivets," a delightful musical, was staged on board the SS Red Oak Victory, the last ship built and launched in the Kaiser shipyards during 1944.

Her #2 Hold had been cleared of all of the clutter that's been accumulating over the many years since she was towed from her berth in the mothball fleet at Mare Island to be reprieved for an extended life as a part of the Rosie The Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park. After serving in the South Pacific theater during WWII, and ending her seagoing in the Vietnam war, her decks now serve Sunday morning pancake breakfasts to Bay Trail walkers and cyclists during the summer months, and a Thursday evening film series from that era (this week saw the last in this summer's series, "The Best Years of Our Lives") hosted by our NPS interpreters. I can only imagine how thrilled the young cast of "Rivets" is to be recreating those stories in the very place where they were lived; in the #2 Hold where the stage is expansive and the audience seated on folding chairs in a semi-circle -- close enough to touch.

The many subplots are carried along by a rousing musical score, but what marred the performance for me was the need to force myself to allow the playwright the freedom to create a reality of racial mixing on stage that would not have occurred in that time period in that place. The conflict was not in the work but in the contradictions in real time -- and mostly in my own head. What is possible today on stage would not have been allowed in the reality of life as we lived it during those years. And, after all, is this not precisely what we were working toward? Would I wish it otherwise? Of course not!

Black and white folks during the war years shared working spaces (albeit on an unequal basis), but socially it would not have been possible. The scenes in the play where black culture was reflected through song and dance, the cast was (necessarily) racially integrated. It was the only way the scenes could be played. But here in my head were those memories that screamed that black servicemen and women were not served by the USO, and that Sweets Ballroom near the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland had 3 nights for public dancing, one for whites, one for Latinos, and another for African Americans. Never were we in the same places, socially, at the same time. We entertained black servicemen in our homes, or, at San Francisco's Buchanan Street USO, for blacks only.

I found my mind wandering during the intermission, wondering -- in light of the upcoming Home Front Festival (weekend of October 2nd) -- if those conversations about the USO dance being a strictly segregated activity ever occurred? Have those who are resurrecting it as a feature of the festival understood what those barriers meant to black workers? I'm wondering if -- in our racially diverse city -- just how today's community people can deal with that reality? There are so few of us still alive who remember, that maybe it's no longer an issue. Should it be? I'm not at all sure. What can possibly be gained by making others aware of such old pain? But what will be lost by ignoring those experiences?

Maybe, as in Rivets, we should all simply revisit that miserable past with eyes wide open so that we can -- belatedly -- begin to process that history -- but this time, together, from the same side of the racial divide.

This is precisely what playwright Kathy McCarty and her multiracial cast of talented young people are doing. By their example; by their ability to confront those painful issues from a position of love; they may well be setting the stage for the next phase of this unpredictable and imperfect reality that we share, across races, cultures, and generations.

As I walked down the gangplank as the sun was setting, I could hear ringing in my ears the words " order to form a more perfect union...".

Photo: Yes, that would be me in the center with Kathy McCarty (in blue) on my left, surrounded by members of the cast.

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