Is it a negative to suggest a play would be better as a TV movie when it probably would make quite a good one? “Court-Martial at Fort Devens” dramatizes an obscure true story from 1945, when African-American women soldiers were court-martialed for refusing to accede to blatant bigotry. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet tells the compelling tale cleanly, efficiently, but without the depth of character or theatrical style that would provide it with intensity and immediacy. It’s history lite, and to fulfill its mission it could use some star casting and a cable TV rewrite.
Sweet really does deserve credit for his archeology, finding this story buried in a paper from 1945. A group of African-American women joined the Women’s Army Corps and were sent to Fort Devens in Massachusetts to be trained as medical technicians. But the racist, sexist commander at the base considered them below such duties and reassigned them to mop floors. Some of them refused and were court-martialed for disobeying orders.
Premiering at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, the play raises some important and relevant issues. Sure, the military requires that people obey orders, but what to do when the order is flat-out morally wrong?
This simple and fundamentally unanswerable question alone manages to sustain “Court-Martial” for its entire 90-minute running time, as the playwright works through the machinations of what happened, including the trial, the result and the aftermath.
But while Sweet produces plenty of straightforward drama, he doesn’t deliver the complex characters who would compel us to care more deeply. His figures feel like conglomerations of people and not people themselves, defined completely by situation and stance. As is, the play involves transparent conflict and underexplored characters.
The raw material, though, has all sorts of promise, and Sweet touches on the aspects that would bear further exploration. The characters with the most potential prove to be not the young women (Ericka Ratcliff and Samantha D. Tanner) who decide, perhaps naively, to risk their freedom to make a point, or the flamboyant civil rights lawyer (Phillip Edward Van Lear) who defends them. Rather, it’s the female officers (Cameron Feagan and Velma Austin) who sympathize but follow military protocol.
Highlight of the show comes when Austin’s character, a trailblazing African-American lieutenant, testifies, embodying the tension that occurs when one’s allegiances conflict so clearly. It’s this type of internal drama that needs further development for “Court-Martial” to make an impact. And it’s the kind of drama Lifetime would understand exactly how to achieve.