CAMP LOGAN Theater Review – An Award-Winning Play about Racial Intolerance in the MilitaryBy Kaylene Peoples | May 2nd, 2012 | Category: Entertainment, Theater Reviews | 3 comments
Camp Logan will take you through a series of powerful emotions and teach you about true patriotism.
Captivating, riveting, joyful, comical, and devastatingly real! These are adjectives that describe the play Camp Logan, which premiered April 28, 2012, at the Robey Theatre in Downtown LA. Was it a coincidence that the racially sensitive play coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Rodney King riots; or by design scheduled to run through the second quarter of our presidential campaign, a campaign unfortunately filled with undercurrents of racism against our first African-American President? If this weren’t orchestrated, there are bigger forces at play. Aside from the sensitive, yet clever writing, as well as an uncanny ability to touch the pulse of anyone who has ever loved this country, Camp Logan speaks to those with a beating heart exhibiting any semblance of tolerance.
The history of the Camp Logan Riot, up until present day, has been one of great controversy. Camp Logan playwright Celeste Bedford Walker waited most of her life before tackling the story. There is information about the incident on several sources online, including Wikipedia:
The Houston Riot of 1917, or Camp Logan Riot, was a mutiny by 156 African-American soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all Black 24th United States Infantry. It occupied most of one night, and resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and sixteen civilians. The rioting soldiers were tried. A total of nineteen were executed, and forty-one were given life sentences.
Some websites cite the mutiny accurately with much emotional commentary, while others slant it in the favor of white Houstonians, law enforcement, and the armed forces, making it look as if there were no wrongdoing by the abovementioned. But the play is successful in displaying the truth, and the impact is chilling.
“The story of Camp Logan was something that I had heard as a young girl growing up, especially when there was some racial incident that happened in the city. The elders in the community whispered, ‘We don’t want another Camp Logan.’ So I heard it all my life and I really started to listen to it with a writer’s ear and imagination after I had written a couple of plays. I started to hear the Shakespearian-like aspects. The records of this incident were sealed for some 50 years. When I first wrote the play, it was very good that I could get the oral history. But since then the records have been released. I’ve seen them. There are just boxes and boxes of them,” quotes playwright Celeste Bedford Walker at the Camp Logan Q&A on April 29, 2012.
Camp Logan director Alex Morris performed in the play for several years prior to its newest production and therefore was pivotal in accurately representing its messages of racism among the Black soldiers in the armed forces during the period of WWI. The play centers around the almost all Black cast of seven men: Gweely Brown, an army veteran and self-proclaimed ladies man with a quick temper; Boogaloosa, a “high yellow” mulatto of French descent; Joe Moses, a career soldier with an attitude, who is big-hearted and full of jokes; Hardin, an educated 19-year-old soldier just starting his army career; Robert Franciscus, a soldier devoted to his girlfriend and a stickler for following the rules; Sergeant McKinney, who is in charge of the infantry; and Captain Zuelke, the only non-Black cast member. These black men face extreme racism by the white citizens of Houston, TX, with little to no support from their own army. The racial climate leads to arrests, false accusations, beatings, threats, and the ultimate betrayal, leaving in question this infantry’s whole reason for being there. With the opportunity to prove themselves as soldiers ripped from them, their only recourse is to fight the real war, racism.
Having been moved by just a table read of this play by the same production company last year, I was shocked that I could be even more affected by its prose. I wanted to write about Camp Logan, based on that table read, but was asked by Robey Theatre producer Ben Guillory to wait until it was ready for production. From that initial experience, my sense of right and wrong was brought to the forefront and I questioned the ethics of our seemingly self-effacing country. What Blacks had to do to accomplish anything as a whole back then became my sobering revelation in view of the perpetual injustices inflicted on Blacks throughout America’s fallible history. I am glad I took Guillory’s advice and waited to see the finished production on April 29. Even though the script and acting alone could carry this play, this production has evolved with some modern additions. The multimedia components of video and sound effects give Camp Logan more layers; which for me created an even deeper understanding, affecting my auditory and visual senses.
“We have incorporated scenes from the Camp Logan documentary. That is how we were able to come up with our multimedia in the play,” quotes Celeste Bedford Walker.
The set design is simple but accurate. The cast inhabited a tented barracks with modest decor and minimal furnishings in traditional army drab. The second set, which is adjacent, is Captain Zuelke’s office.
What I really liked about Camp Logan was the diverse cast. One really gets a sense of the Deep South with the characters Boogaloosa (Dorian C. Baucum) and Gweely Brown (Sammie Wayne IV). With special musical talents for singing and playing the blues, their combined experiences in Camp Logan lend themselves to the universal language of music. With one demeaning request, the two men don shoe polish on their faces and swallow their pride to act out a minstrel show for Houston’s white civilians at a paid musical performance. They re-enact their show for novice Private Hardin (Kaylon Hunt) back in their room later the same night. Actor Dorian Baucum’s role carries the racial diversity and interracial mixes that make up the South. He longs for New Orleanians’ appreciation of his music (he’s a trumpet player), while recalling the bigotry that has plagued him since fleeing the South for his own survival just prior to arriving at Camp Logan.
Actors Bill Lee Brown (Joe Moses) and Sammie Wayne IV (Gweely Brown) were both excellent in blending comic relief with a dash of veteran cynicism. The two actors, whose characters are best friends, play off each other well.
A successful display of character development and a compliment to the playwright is Sergeant McKinney (Lee Stansberry). He is the voice of reason to his complaining men. Their pontifications are justified but not acquiesced by the beleaguered sergeant, whose own sense of duty limits his emotional response to them. Actor Lee Stansberry is staunch in this role, but in the last act displays a character arc both noticeable and heartfelt. His interaction with Captain Zuelke proves more difficult as the play progresses, and he ultimately exhibits the inner triumphs of a true leader.
The role of Captain Zuelke (Jacob Sidney) is challenging. He has two conflicting sides. The first side is the sympathetic commanding officer, who acts as if he understands the plight of his Black soldiers. The second side is a man whose comrades are the bigoted offenders in the armed forces with whom he must relate, please, and socialize. Actor Jacob Sidney navigates through this tricky land mine in perfect character of the flawed man whom he is portraying. He constantly belittles the sergeant with his condescending remarks, occasionally calling him “nigger,” and patronizing him and his men whenever his superiors apply pressure. Captain Zuelke’s obvious weaknesses become more apparent as his role of leader disintegrates.
Hardin (Kaylon Hunt) represents the young idealist, the future, and the way things can be. Unfettered because of his youth, and raised with positive interracial interaction, his experiences are vastly different from the other men’s. His is a voice that resonates hope, often upsetting everyone else in the process. The character Robert Fransiscus (Dwain A. Perry) is also one of idealism and perhaps arguably, one of naïveté. With blinders, he pursues his “American dream” to have a perfect life with a preacher’s daughter and aspirations to move up in Black society.
Camp Logan will take you through a range of emotions. With such a strong cast and their obvious camaraderie, you will feel as though you are a part of the action. The 99-seat theater makes the experience even more intense, which can’t be helped due to such intimate surroundings. You’ll follow each character through his highs and lows, and you just might find yourself exhausted when it’s over . . . but the better for it. I left the Robey Theatre with a unique understanding of patriotism and conflicting emotions about where this country has been and where it’s headed. The parallels with the political events of today are uncanny.
“These are just men who loved their country who exhibited the ultimate sign of patriotism. The men of Camp Logan were willing to die for a country that rejected them.” – Director Alex Morris
I strongly recommend seeing Camp Logan. If you’re curious about military history, if you want to see another side of patriotism, or if you’re just interested in basic human rights, you will find this play profoundly interesting, moving, and most importantly, educational. I walked out of the Robey Theatre changed. Just thinking about those six soldiers trying to do right by their country and facing insurmountable racial intolerance makes me want to spread the word about this fabulous theater production. This play is definitely worth seeing! Go online or drive to the theater to purchase your tickets. Do it now. Don’t miss out on a valuable piece of American history . . . a true story that needs to be seen.
“This keeps happening to America. We’re at that dividing stage. We can go this way or we can go that way. And I think that’s what was happening back then. Whites could feel it, and they were really trying to keep that change from happening. Blacks were going to have a change. So, they just left and went to where they could be free . . . moving from South to North,” quotes Celeste Bedford Walker.
Camp Logan is a Robey Theatre Company (Co-Founder Ben Guillory); Sparkling City Entertainment (Vanessa Paul and Alex Morris) and JuVee Productions (Julius Tennon and Viola Davis) joint venture. Please visit www.robeytheatrecompany.com for more information.
The Robey Theatre Company is located at Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013. The production runs from April 28, 2012 through May 27, 2012. Admission is $30. For students, seniors, veterans, and groups of ten or more, admission is $20.
For online ticket information, please visit: www.thelatc.org. For reservations, call (866) 811-4111.