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Off-Broadway Review

NY Review: 'Court-Martial at Fort Devens'

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NY Review: 'Court-Martial at Fort Devens'
Photo Source: Gerry Goodstein
“Court-Martial at Fort Devens,” Jeffrey Sweet’s history-lesson play, is excellent for the first hour. Its message of racial prejudice hits hard at our sense of ethics, even though the presentation of the perturbing events is emotionally uninvolving.

Set in 1944-1945, the engrossing narrative is based on a true story of black Women’s Army Corps members who enlisted in the service to obtain nursing training. But when a racist colonel observes one of the black WACs doing her job—putting a thermometer into the mouth of a white soldier—he has the black women “reclassified” as orderlies. Forced to scrub floors and clean latrines rather than work as medical technicians-in-training, two of the women defy orders and are court-martialed.

Haunting jazz music by Mark Bruckner, Shirley Prendergast’s sharp lighting, and John Scheffler’s attractively functional wooden set pieces convincingly re-create the World War II–era army-hospital setting and underline the show’s incisive theme. The capable ensemble cast features especially fine performances by Emma O’Donnell and Gillian Glasco as the white and black, respectively, female officers in charge of the WACs.

Sweet does an admirable job of weaving educational elements into his script to help audience members who may know little about the politics of the time period, the war, or the armed forces. Mary Beth Easley directs the proceedings in a cleverly stylized fashion that supports the conveyance of the facts. Many lines are delivered straight out to the audience. The actors slip in and out of different roles and are intermittently called upon to serve as narrators or providers of important background information. Sometimes, when they are not involved in a scene, the performers sit on wooden folding chairs along the sides of the stage and observe the goings-on.

All of this ultimately creates a distance that keeps us removed from the emotions of the drama, which is perhaps why Sweet spends the final 30 minutes of his play telling us how to feel. In a bloated trial scene, he hammers away at how awful the women felt upon being called “black.” (One must imagine that the playwright is employing that more palatable term to represent what was probably the N-word.) Though his play stays just shy of preachy throughout, Sweet unfortunately underlines this quality by following the trial with a church scene in which the obvious is explained: While the guilty verdict was legally correct (the army has the right to reclassify soldiers as it sees fit), it was morally unjust. By the time Eleanor Roosevelt arrives to save the day, we are too tired of being lectured at to appreciate O’Donnell’s delightful portrayal of her.

Presented by New Federal Theatre, in association with Castillo Theatre, at Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd St., NYC. March 18–April 1. Thu–Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, (212) 941-1234, www.theatermania.com, or www.castillo.org. Casting by Lawrence Evans.

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