nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 15, 2004
As fate would have it, I ended up seeing Valiant, a new play by Lanna Joffrey, the night before what may very well turn out to be the largest single demonstration against the policies of a wartime administration in the history of the United States. The piece is composed of interviews conducted by Sally Heyton-Keeva for her book Valiant Women in War and Exile. These women are survivors of conflicts representing a wide range of geographical areas and time periods: from Armenian Turkey during World War I to El Salvador and Afghanistan in the Reagan era. Some were victims, others were soldiers, while still others witnesses to the after-effects of war’s indiscriminate carnage. As these women from diverse cultures and economic classes recite a brutal litany of humiliations, assassinations, rapes, unspeakable tortures, and bodily desecrations, the nightmare history of twentieth-century inhumanity is resurrected at the Greenwich Street Theatre.
While all of this is undeniably important, especially in the current political climate, ultimately Joffrey falls into a trap with the material: It’s much too easy for me as an American to sit in the theatre and hear stories from places like Auschwitz or Belfast. U.S. culpability in those crimes is tangential or nonexistent, and this distance permits me to sympathize with the onstage women without having to examine my own past. (She does include a Japanese-American woman interned during World War II, but in this context, her story, while an injustice, can’t compete with the atrocities.) Furthermore, nothing is really dramatized, and because of this, very little of the event connects at a visceral level. I found my attention wandering as yet one more cruelty was revisited, surely the opposite of Joffrey’s intention.
The one exception to this is the last testimonial of the evening, offered by a woman grotesquely disfigured in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Here an American audience is forced to confront an event for which we bear responsibility. Powerfully yet simply recounted by Sharahn LaRue, this woman’s story serves as a rebuke to an official culture that continues to insist that dropping hydrogen bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. That this woman has forgiven the United States for what it did to her and chooses to focus on love for all humanity is profoundly moving.
Director Tamilla Woodard gets uniformly excellent performances out of her four primary actresses, but special praise goes to the intense focus that Tami Dixon brings to each of her characterizations. Woodard’s production begins promisingly, but her repeated use of live computer keyboard typing to introduce each segment soon bogs down the evening. One wishes both she and Joffrey had found a more urgent and less reassuring container for their message. Even liberals like me have to get shaken up to change the course we’re on.