Suze Diaz — San Marcos, CA …“What happens when women engage in combat? Does it change the way we engage in conflict? What does it uncover about expected gender roles? How does it impact men and women deployed to a part of the world where women have no voice?”
Playwright, director, theater artist and educator, Dr. Rebecca Johannsen, expands her one-woman performance straight from Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Women And War: EXODUS Festival into a full-fledged production onto the stage at California State University, San Marcos (supported by a grant given by the university) to portray four diverse characters giving personal account of the nature of trauma, conflict, misogyny and exploring their connections with the women in Afghanistan. Along with co-director, artist and educator John Moletress (founding director of force/collision, an interdisciplinary performance ensemble) and Venezuelan-Italian choreographer and dancer Verónica Santiago Moniello, the play unravels perspective of an intense mission for women in war told through the acting talents of students Joy Cooper (Palomar College), Brittany Escobedo (CSU San Marcos), Sheradyn Luro (CSU San Marcos) and Nina Watts (CSU San Marcos).
The emotionally powerful play is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. It is a collaboration of poetry, visual art, movement and collection of verbatim interviews given from women in the US Army that Dr. Johannsen met who were part of an entire unit of the Female Engagement Team (FET) deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-2013. Originally created by the United States Marine Corps, these teams of female soldiers go into villages in combat zones with male soldiers. Because the male soldiers had been denied access prior to areas reserved for the women in the village, these female teams are seen as less threatening, more friendly, are allowed to go into the homes to relieve tension and talk to the men, women , and children. This was the time before the ban was lifted for women to be in combat zones; however, they were fully trained alongside the male soldiers, fully ready for combat. The FET was to engage the village women, talk to them to gather intelligence, build rapport, build relationships and give the US military a better reputation in the area. The play explores the abstract relationship and dialog experience of these female soldiers with people in the villages but more importantly the women in the villages.
It was immensely fascinating for Dr. Johanssen, as she would fly to interview each member of the FET team twice within a six-month period. Finding a balance to be accurately honest and respectful of what was shared with her was priority, as well as thinking about how these experiences impacted these women physically as they relived their stories. While the female soldiers were happy to speak with her, they were disciplined at first in their responses to her questions. As time went on, they became more relaxed, comfortable and felt free to express themselves regarding their traumatic experiences acquiring closeness with Dr. Johannsen. Having kept in touch with all of the women, to which she felt as an honorary member of their sisterhood, a few of the FET members have seen clips of the play and there is a possibility they will be in attendance at the reception on November 8th. The play is part of the healing process of their time in Afghanistan.
A few of the most surprising aspects of putting together the play was exploring the questions regarding the conflicts between the details of going on a combat
mission in one of the most dangerous parts of the world yet talking to people in a humanitarian fashion and how quickly it was to get the stories gathered together. The responses to the play so far has been one of curiosity and fascination by the general public on why a person would join the military and on the other side, former military felt the play was a good representation of their own similar experiences. At a performance in London, Dr. Johanssen was able to share a fifteen-minute segment of her play to a group of Afghan women for a fundraiser show that resulted in a bonding experience with their confirmation given on the part of what she had presented.
One of the most rewarding and wonderfully powerful experiences for this production was learning the human connection between the members of the FET and the Afghan women; having amazing teams of women getting together to bring their stories to life. Mentoring and guiding the young women for the show in London and in San Marcos has been empowering. Traditionally, there have been fewer roles in female storytelling, but changes are occurring where there are more stories of women to women relationship and sisterhood that are now becoming more center stage.
Although the play was at first a one-woman production with a lot of overwhelming responsibility on solo shoulders dealing with technical challenges and the like, the full-production that will be presented at CSU San Marcos is the beginning of what Dr. Johannsen hopes to be a fully funded tour through more theaters and many US military bases to bridge the gap between the military and the civilian public; prompting many meaningful conversations and connections on issues seen differently. One of the favorite quotes made from the performance at Edinburgh Festival Fringe could possibly be made in CSU San Marcos after audiences see the play next week: “No easy answers, it forces to ask more questions.”
Performance dates for this production are November 7-10, 2018 at 7:00 PM at California State University, San Marcos’ Performance Hall in Arts Building 111 at 333 S. Twin Oaks Valley Road in San Marcos. General Public tickets are $10. Students, Faculty, Staff and military (active duty or veteran) tickets are free. Tickets can be purchased online at:
For more information about “Women At War”, please visit https://www.womenatwartheplay.com/. Contributions for the charitable purposes of “Women at War” must be made payable to Fractured Atlas only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.