Dallas — While conducting research on the American occupation of Germany, playwright Jeffrey Sweet stumbled across an article in the 1945 New York Herald Tribune with the following headline: “Four Colored Girls to Be Tried for Mutiny.” Intrigued, he abandoned his planned research and pursued this new story instead. Sweet searched the Harlem-based Schomberg Center collection of black history and culture documents, and the NAACP files in the Library of Congress. It was not until he obtained a transcript of the court martial through a military history archive in Falls River, Virginia that he learned all of the details of the trial.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens is a play based upon this event. The African-American Repertory Theater presents this play, directed by Willie Minor, as its season opener.
The true story began during the spring of 1944. In response to pressure applied by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 60 black women, members of one of the segregated units of the WACs (Women’s Army Corps), were sent to Lovell Hospital at Fort Devens (Boston area) to receive training as medical technicians. Prior to this initiative, they would have been relegated to menial labor. Among these young women were Pvts. Alice Young, Johnnie Mae Murphy, Mary Green and Anna Morrison. They were excited at the opportunity to be of service in the medical field.
Colonel Kimball reacted negatively to the sight of a black technician placing a thermometer into the mouth of a white serviceman. He ordered the reclassification of the women from medical technicians to orderlies, which meant they would be cleaning floors and latrines instead of taking temperatures. Six of the women refused to report to their new duties. From their perspective, the military had broken its arrangement with them through discrimination and racism. The WACs actions constituted a strike which was a violation of the Articles of War.
On March 20, 1945, four of the six women, Pvts. Young, Murphy, Green and Morrison, were tried and convicted of insubordination by an army general court martial. Their sentences were dishonorable discharges and one year each of hard labor.
Sweet’s play profiles two of these defendants. Pvt. Alice Young is represented through the character Virginia “Ginny” Boyd (Kyndra Mack), and Pvt. Johnnie Mae Murphy is the character Johnnie Mae (Michelle Mays).
Lt. Tenola Stoney (Regina Washington) the black officer for the colored WACs, defense attorney Julian Rainey (Artist Thornton, Jr.), Lt. Lawson (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) the white officer in charge, and General Sherman Miles and Colonel Kimball (Jordan Willis) are directly associated with the court martial.
Pvt. Boyd’s father (Selmore Haines III) and Pvt. Curtis (Vandous E. Stripling II) have direct interactions with Pvt. Boyd. Gertrude and Ruby are composite characters (Sydney Sherow Celestin). Pyeatt, Celestin, Willis and Haines assume the roles of several characters.
This story is told in flashback. Sweet’s script incorporates some elements of story theater, most notably that of having characters speak of themselves to the audience in third person before stepping into their roles. All of the actors are onstage for the duration of the play, seated upstage when not involved in the action. This cast keeps the pace moving, and the transitions clear. This is important, particularly for a script with this writing style that can be a little confusing.
Haines, demonstrably the most seasoned of the actors, smoothes his way in and out of characters, bringing a realness to each, creating moments. His father/daughter scene with Mack is poignant. Pyeatt is convincing as the white lieutenant with a sincere desire to advocate for the four women, and as Eleanor Roosevelt. Costumes help, but it is through voice and gesture that Pyeatt best distinguishes Lawson from Roosevelt.
Willis’ characters are adversarial to the cause of the accused. While he assumes different roles, the common thread is the belief that the accused are guilty and that the charge is just and rational. Willis maintains that unyielding physicality and focus even when he is seated upstage.
There are still levels for Mack to find within the urgency she brings to the role of Ginny Boyd. Through Mack, Mays and Celestin, the plight of the sixty women in the unit is revealed. It is the relationship among these three that binds the story together.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens reintroduces one of many lost and hidden stories of this country that reflect the paradoxical African-American experience—that of a group that fought for the freedoms of people in another part of the world, while serving in the military of a country that denied them the same freedoms. Refusing to be invisible, these four WACs were not silent. It is from Pvt. Johnnie Mae Murphy we hear “If it will advance the cause of my people, I will take death.”