Dallas — The South Dallas Cultural Center opens its theater season Thursday with a blistering tale about a female veteran returning from Iraq struggling with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and her family ghosts and secrets. The production of Speed Killed My Cousin, running Oct. 30-Nov. 1, comes from the 45-year-old Carpetbag Theatre of Knoxville, Tenn., and stars local actress Ashley Wilkerson.
We spoke with playwright Linda Parris Bailey about the many layers of pain and trauma experienced by veterans and her exploration of the question, “Is healing possible?”
TheaterJones: What is the inspiration behind this searing work?
Linda Parris Bailey: My experience with war is based on being a teenager during the Vietnam War, which was very present for me. A family experience inspired me to write a short story about a cousin who died after that war. I suspected that his death was not an accident, rather vehicular suicide. When he returned from the war he was not the same—the way he talked and interacted with people was not normal. I was only 13 years old, yet I had certain awareness about it all. What happened to him affected my entire family, all of us. Later, as a student at Howard University, I wrote a short story about the experiences surrounding my cousin. My instructor at the time was John Oliver Killens [an American fiction writer whose novels of African-American life received two Pulitzer Prize nominations]. I received a wonderful note after I turned in the story. He said I should turn it into a novel. I held onto it.
How did your experience lead to Speed Killed My Cousin?
I began to read stories and learned about the effects of war and the rise in suicides with veterans returning from Iraq. I began to access those stories and look at them from a woman’s point of view. It seemed very timely. I learned that there is a lack of connection to the Iraq war. We don’t see the footage and body counts like we did during Vietnam. Our experience with war is not what it was during the Vietnam era—it is not the same.
You’ve engaged veterans in the writing and telling of this story. Why?
We’ve worked with several veterans organizations. Veterans for Peace as well as Iraq Veterans Against the War—and we’ve worked with several veteran’s service centers. It was important to present from diverse perspectives and not purely from one point of view. We wanted to capture a range of experiences and do it in a way that doesn’t blame the soldier.
You’ve also engaged Veterans as consultants?
I’m the playwright but I’m also a member of an ensemble [Carpetbag Theater]. Everyone has input and has conducted research. I came in contact with a young man and woman who have informed the work, both of whom still struggle with PTSD. She is a graduate student and has made tremendous progress through this process. We have a digital storytelling project that they have contributed to as well.
How do you want the audience to leave feeling or knowing about PTSD?
In the simplest terms, it is to be aware of the issue of moral injury. Sexual trauma and seeing repeated atrocities are framed as a military problem, but it is a problem for our society at large. Our veterans are coming home to families and communities. We want people to leave knowing that healing is possible.
And, how is moral injury defined?
It essentially deals with the damages and breaks that occur when someone participates in something or sees something against one’s moral code. It causes psychological damage. One of the reasons we’ve heard that the military has been slow to respond to the suicide rates is because one has to admit that atrocities have occurred. There are incidences in war where people have a very difficult time recovering—this is a key element in the central characters story.
So, through telling this story are you saying that it is possible to heal the soul?
Yes, but it’s tough, tough work. We also want the audience and those who’ve suffered from PTSD to know that one cannot be the same but a new life can be created for oneself. You can create a world where you can live and be productive.
Many of your works include the theme of empowerment and transformation. The central character of Speed Killed my Cousin is an African-American woman struggling with PTSD. Are women affected differently?
Many women join the military to escape something in their lives or home and they see the military as a way out. Women who have children look at ways of support and others of course want to make a career and advance in the military. However, when there is a violation or breach of trust many women don’t report violations for fear of reprisal. There is a high level of homelessness among women vets as well as lack of resources and then another layer is what’s happening to their children.
What other dynamics does the play address?
The play reflects the complexities of sexuality in the military and the conflicts surrounding that element. We live complex lives and the main character is faced with her sexuality as well.
Why did the Carpetbag Theatre decide to come to Texas?
Texas has a real engagement with the military and we’re interested in communities that reflect that. This tour also includes San Antonio and Houston. And, the presenters are those that we know who also are National Network Presenters (NPN). We have those relationships that go back for years. I’m excited to be here with Vicki Meek and through a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) we are able to provide subsidies to the actors and that’s big for us!
As I fictionalized the experience that I had with my cousin during the Vietnam War, it allowed me to delve into a subject matter in a whole new way. It really started as a family story—that’s where the seed germinated. Now I believe we have created something that is useful.