An awful event from the annals of WWII Navy lore and America’s sorry racial heritage is at the center of Paul Leaf’s “Mutiny at Port Chicago,” in its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theater. The little-known instance of high-level institutional prejudice leading to a mass refusal to obey an order maintains interest, even though its presentation here rarely rises above the pedestrian.
Films have only rarely explored the role of black GIs and swabbies in the “Good War,” stage plays even less often, so Leaf is to be commended in unearthing the 1944 events around San Francisco’s East Bay as evidence of how cruelly they were employed. Most volunteered for combat but, underestimated and considered dispensable, they were shunted into backbreaking but dangerous menial tasks like loading ordnance onto transport ships.
When two vessels exploded on July 17, 1944, two-thirds of the 320 dead were African-Americans. And when hundreds of survivors balked at further ammo-hauling without safety precautions, it wasn’t insubordination but mutiny with which 50 were charged — the largest such case in U.S. naval history.
Leaf has done the research but has not translated it into genuine drama. Exposition is shoveled out in ho-hum direct address, with multiple meaningful pauses inserted as if fearing we would otherwise fail to appreciate the situation’s gravity.
The four strong thesps chosen to represent the accused 50 (Pedro Coiscou, Durant Fowler, and especially Eric Bivens-Bush and J. Teddy Garces) engage in persuasive service roughhouse, and get in some good licks while on the witness stand. There’s tension in the courtroom scenes, even in a patently kangaroo court whose inquisition holds no mysteries because any question of the men’s innocence has already been cleared up for us.
But again, it’s as if the story can’t be trusted to evoke the right emotions, for the seamen are all written as one-dimensionally noble, while the top brass are a snarling pack of unregenerate racists and snobs, not a moral qualm among the bunch. (One of the worst of these men issues a shamed mea culpa during the epilogue, but since there’s no hint of ambivalence in his character up to that point, the reversal doesn’t convince.)
The underreported Port Chicago tragedy continues to await a mature, complex telling. In the meantime, helmer Leaf — who breaks up his play’s rhythms with needless clunky blackouts — should issue his officers a direct order to take greater command of their lines.