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WUNC's Belans Blows Vietnam Discussion

By Pat Arnow, Judy Bush, Steve Giles, and John Townsley


A few weeks ago, Archipelago Theater with Manbites Dog Theater Vietnam Vetpresented Eulogy for a Warrior, a new play about those who served in Vietnam. Directed by Ellen Hemphill and written by her in collaboration with Nor Hill, the play was meant as "a place to touch a name and do something with it," Hemphill told The Spectator. "We began to think about the war and loss and rites of passage for men in our society," she said.

It did what she intended. Laughing and chatting outside the theater, the audience instantly hushed as they filed into Duke's Shaefer theater; it was a transformed space, filled with bamboo, a muddy field in the middle with people in black pajamas and cone-shaped reed hats bending over as if working in rice fields, eerie flute music in the background, the air humid.

As the play began, a man who could be a Vietnam veteran — gray hair, gray beard — narrated a fairy tale that was the story of the war, the political story, as a fable about the emperors of a great powerful country and the "land of the water" far away. Men in fatigues told their soldiers' stories using poems, letters, music, movement, tramping through the mud, alternately contemplative, playful, scared, scarred; women who were their mothers and nurses and wives told their stories the same way. It was a powerful production.

Afterwards, WUNC-FM talk show host Linda Belans led a discussion between the playwright, director, actors and the audience. Belans cut short a discussion of the fate of the warriors who served in Vietnam to talk about "voice work" and "movement work" that the actors did. She did not acknowledge or offer belated honor to the sacrifice of veterans and their families, sacrifices that often includes a lifetime of painful memories of Vietnam.

This discussion missed the point — even contradicted the point — of the play. It was an insult to veterans. And how dismal that the person who conducts a regular talk show, "The State of Things," on the largest public radio station in the state is shallower than the muddy field in the middle of the state set of Eulogy for a Warrior.

A group that includes several therapists working with veterans who have experienced war traumas attended the play at Hemphill's invitation (she had interviewed one of the veterans). Two of the therapists in this group are themselves Vietnam veterans. The people in this group did not participate in the discussion. Though there were clearly other Vietnam veterans in the audience as well, only one veteran spoke during the discussion, and he expressed a decidedly minority viewpoint.

Members of this group want to express thoughts that we did not say out loud that night of the play, and the Prism has offered to allow us space to express our point of view. We have used Belans' discussion as the basis for this group's Act II for Eulogy for a Warrior.

We have used only minor creative license — audience and Linda Belans' words are all direct quotes or paraphrases from the Friday, May 8, performance. The lines by the veterans are quotes from thoughts we had that night.

Act II:

'And a Ninny Shall Lead Them'
— or —
'Eulogy for a Tenor'

Audience member 1 (A fat white-haired man wearing love beads)
It was excellent. It showed how misguided our policies were in South Vietnam.

Audience 2 (A young, earnest woman)
I only knew this war through textbooks. The fable about the war really made me understand it. Now I feel like I know what happened and what people went through.

Audience 3 (A trim man with a crewcut in his 50s)
You make the same mistake that Hollywood makes. Not everyone there was a draftee who didn't want to be there as your play would have us believe. There were professional soldiers there. Many of us loved the Vietnamese. The draftees did some of the worst things there, and it was the professional soldier who stopped them. At times we had to point our own weapons at them.

(As audience earnestly continues discussion, spotlight turns to two men in their 50s in the audience. They say their thoughts out loud, but no one in the discussion hears them.)

Vet 1 (a man with a pony tail who spent a great part of the play moving out of the line of fire each time an actor pointed one of the M-16s at him, so is already agitated)
Listen to that revisionist BS. Check out that crewcut. He probably got a haircut today so he'd look just right when he came to make his speech tonight. I've heard that voice before and seen those gestures.

Should I nail this lifer motherfucker and remind him of the number of times that draftees had to point their weapons at officers who with their "professional soldiers" issues were about to get everyone needlessly killed?

Should I just jump up, run over there and choke the lifer bastard? Nah, vets don't need the negative PR. Although it would be a trip to see the looks on some of these smug faces. It still pisses me off when people miss the point of such a powerful piece of work and as a way to cover their discomfort with the serious issues, spend their time on what is drivel to a warrior.

Vet 2 (Another man in his 50s)
If the emperor was the great father, he's the big brother doing the father's bidding. He's the guy who ordered the younger brothers to their death and disillusionment.

(spotlight turns back to discussion)

Audience member 4 (Another young woman)
This reminds me of the people who've been in the news who wouldn't let the troops kill the Vietnamese. They just got medals.

Linda Belans
Yes, we had a man here last night who was a prisoner of war talking about that.

Ellen Hemphill (semi-whispering)
Uh, that was a prisoner of conscience. He spent time in jail because he was against the war. Not a prisoner of war.

Vet 1 (Thinking out loud but not heard by rest of audience)
Who is this ignoramus moderator? If you didn't have gray hair, that wouldn't have sounded quite so stupid, but you're old enough that you should have known there's a big difference between a prisoner of war and an anti-war prisoner.

Linda Belans
Oh, yes, that's right. Well, we've been talking about Vietnam here, but now I'd like to bring it into the room and talk about some of the techniques used in the play. How many people here were told that they were tone deaf? Raise your hands! Yes, well, I'd like to talk about some of the voice work that these actors did...

(As Linda Belans prattles on, spotlight turns back to the two Vietnam vets who again speak their thoughts)

Vet 1
She wants to know who's tone deaf but not who in this audience served in Vietnam? I was invited here with a vet group that identified itself to the ticket people and I leave with the eulogy lost on actors of abstract, fantasy soldiers.

Vet 2
It's like they want to touch my scar without wanting to know my name.

(Spot returns to Linda Belans)

Linda Belans
How was it working in the mud for your actors?

Actor 1
It was cold, but we got used it. Working in these conditions brought us closer together —it's not the same magnitude of the soldiers in Vietnam, but it gave some hint of how they bonded there.

Actor 2 It was a wonderful experience. We laughed a lot.

  Judy Bush, Steve Giles, and John Townsley are therapists specializing in treatment for veterans who have experienced war trauma. Townsley is also a Vietnam veteran. Pat Arnow is a Durham writer.  

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