Think "war hero" and what comes to mind? An older relative who served in combat long ago? A Hollywood portrayal of soldiers in battle? Invariably, the hero wears a uniform, but that's not always the case, as audiences will learn from Voices from the Long War, written by Jonathan Wei, which will be performed on Thursday, November 10, at the David Rubenstein Atrium. The play aims to shatter stereotypes about war, its heroes, and its victims, by presenting stories told by those who have experienced conflict firsthand. Conceived by executive producer Tom Berry, a veteran himself, the play features six performers who tell their own stories—from different perspectives—of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alongside three combat veterans, Berry includes three refugees who now live in the United States. "So many labels attach to these groups," he said in a recent phone interview. "There are a lot of positives surrounding veterans and a lot of negatives surrounding refugees—a presumption of hero versus terrorist. Both are equally absurd and equally reductionist. No one understands the struggles and triumphs they have in common—or their sense of shared community."
The idea for the play came to Berry when, as a graduate student at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, he walked through the university's war memorial. At that moment he realized that "the legacy [of war] is not just with us, the veterans; it's with those communities that get drawn in." His idea took shape when he met Wei, founder of The Telling Project, which, since 2008, has been creating scripts from first-person stories of veterans and their families.
One of these veterans is cast member Tom Burke, a Marine infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 to 2011, who is now in his third year at Yale Divinity School: "I work with refugees here, and have found I have more in common with a lot of them than I do with most civilians, because we know the reality of war and evil in the world in ways that most Americans don't."
In Voices, Burke’s monologue is followed immediately by a story from Maher Mahmood, an Iraqi refugee now living in Connecticut. Burke explained: "Mine is a story of how I shoot at a motorcycle with a kid on it, and then Maher tells a story of a soldier attacking him because he was using binoculars to look at a convoy. So it's the juxtaposition of my confusion in attacking something I perceived as a threat, and him being on the receiving end of an attack for being perceived as a threat."
"People don’t know what 'refugee' means; they don’t understand that people were forced to leave their home. They call you a terrorist and all these things. We're human, like you."
For the performers in Voices, recounting these stories takes courage, but also presents an opportunity for catharsis. "It was difficult for me. I cried at points reliving things that I definitely try to avoid," said Burke. For Mahmood, it's a chance to educate: "People don't know what 'refugee' means; they don't understand that people were forced to leave their home. They call you a terrorist and all these things. We're human, like you. I'm just lucky, God saved me, so people can hear my voice."
Voices, which had its the debut performance at Yale last spring, concludes with a talk-back with the audience. According to director Kevin Hourigan, it's then that you see the most impact. "The performers have an openness and even humor in how they share their stories, which are moving and touching but also devastating and pretty scary, and you can feel it land on the audience, particularly in the talk-back."
For Hourigan, who is in his final year of an MFA program at the Yale School of Drama, this is the essence of theater: "For the Greeks, the theater was an arena for debate and discourse." He adds: "Working on this play challenged some of my beliefs about war. It made me realize that it's easy to be a pacifist when you never had to touch war. I came to realize how distant I was from this thing that I had very strong opinions about, and how easy it was to form these opinions from a place of ignorance. Which doesn't mean that all my opinions have changed, but now I have more of an understanding of my own ignorance."
For Berry, bringing the play to the Atrium is special. "I am thrilled and honored to be coming to Lincoln Center. I love that it is being performed in this amazing location where people can just walk in off the street. I can't think of anything better, because this whole thing for me is about service. We have a massive civilian-military divide in our country and this work provides a real opportunity to gain perspective in a way that is artistic, but true to the experience."
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofit cultural organizations and former director of publications of the New York Philharmonic.
Lincoln Center's Veterans Initiative has served more than 4,000 veterans and their families, and has partnerships with crucial organizations such as the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans Artist Program, The Mission Continues, the USO, and American Forces Network, the main source of entertainment and news for troops and their families stationed overseas.
The Veterans Initiative aims to serve those who have served by providing free access to high quality art to veterans and their families. Lincoln Center ensures that the veteran community has a meaningful and socially engaging experience at performances by hosting a variety of pre- and post-performance events that increase access and understanding of the arts. The Veterans Initiative also provides educational, professional development, and employment opportunities for qualified veterans, as well as presenting free veteran-generated art and performances.
Voices from The Long War at Lincoln Center is a joint production of The Telling Project and Tom Berry, supported by The Jackson Institute of Public Affairs at Yale University, the Yale School of Drama and Adept Word Management, and presented by the Lincoln Center Veterans Initiative.
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