If you were to ask an educated U.S. citizen what African-American woman is most strongly associated with the birth of the modern civil rights movement, chances are great that the answer you would get is the activist Rosa Parks. But more than a decade before Parks refused to obey a bus driver’s orders to give up her seat to a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, some lesser-known women pioneers resisted racial segregation in the military. Court-Martial at Fort Devens is inspired by their groundbreaking story. Jeffrey Sweet uncovered this important piece of history, which had been neglected for the most part by the major—white—press. In the notes at the end of the script, Sweet explains that he altered and condensed elements of the actual case for dramatic purposes and due to the limitations of the official records. Court-Martial at Fort Devens takes place during World War II, with a group of African-American women joining the Women’s Army Corps in the hopes of being trained for careers as medical technicians by working in the army hospital ward in Fort Devens, Mass.
When the racist, sexist white Colonel Kimball (Bill Tatum) discovers that Private Ginny Boyd (Nambi E. Kelley) and the other WACs have been taking the temperature of white soldiers, he downgrades their military classification to ward orderlies and delegates them to performing custodial duties, such as cleaning toilets and mopping floors. Angry that the army has broken its promise to them, the women initially refuse to do their new tasks. After a day, most of them return to their new posts, but Ginny Boyd and Johnnie Mae Malone (Eboni Witcher) continue to defy the Colonel’s commands, risking their freedom and possibly their lives to fight for justice as they are court martialed for refusing to follow orders during wartime.
The production is engrossing, thanks to a well-written script, a compelling story and a strong nine-member ensemble, with several actors playing multiple roles. Gillian Glasco is memorable as Lt. Tenola Stoney, a female career officer supervising the WACs. She puts aside her feelings to follow military protocol and protect her own career, but as an African-American woman, she is conflicted about the morality of the situation. With the meatiest role in the play, Nambi E. Kelley is perfect as the soft-spoken Ginny, a courageous woman who refuses to back down from defending what is right.
Sweet’s drama underscores the irony of Americans fighting for democracy while at the same time being racially segregated and stereotyped by their own government. The playbill mentions that in 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which abolished racial segregation in the armed forces. But with issues of race and sex discrimination still making news headlines today, Court-Martial at Fort Devens remains a timely piece of theater.
Court-Martial at Fort Devens; Written by Jeffrey Sweet; Directed by Mary Beth Easley; Castillo Theatre; 543 West 42nd Street; 212-941-1234