A group of San Quentin veterans joined some Shakespearean actors to portray the traumas they endured in war.
Recently, over 30 guests came into San Quentin as our nation’s former heroes performed excerpts from their lives alongside Shakespearean actors. The veterans enacted their war traumas to show the cost of war on the country’s soul.
“What we are talking about is the imprint each generation leaves on the next,” said Ron Self, the founder of Veterans Healing Veterans, the veterans’ support group that hosted the play. “Some call [the imprint] generational trauma. As human beings, we pass the torch of war to our children.”
The play, directed by Marin Shakespeare’s Lesley Currier, was called The High Cost of Freedom and portrayed the family story of Joe, Manny, and Junior – a grandfather, father, and son who respectively served in Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and Iraq.
The story was performed in a room predominantly used for drug counseling and peer education programs. There were no PA systems and no lighting apart from the fluorescent tubes overhead and sunlight streaming through east-facing windows. The only stage props were two water guns, chairs and the rolling screens that drug counselors use for their clients’ privacy.
The audience didn’t seem to mind the low-tech production.
The play shifted between emotional scenes such as a military “firefight,” a suicide bombing, and a family’s effort to reconnect with simple but effective choreography. A notable example of these shifts came when Bernard Werner hobbled onstage as Joe returned home with a cane after America’s victory in World War II. People cheered on both sides of the stage as Joe’s son, played by Caleb L. McClelland on his knees, barraged him with innocent questions about war.
“I can’t talk about it,” Joe said to his son as each cast member echoed Joe’s words, striking a symbolic posture and gliding offstage. In the next scene, cheering actors morphed into somber cast members who collapsed, one by one, on center stage.
The inability to talk about “it” – the unspoken trauma veterans pass on to their children and the fear and uncertainty their wives carry like heavy burdens – emerged as a dominant theme in the play. Juxtaposed against a history of silence, stark monologues revealed the truths of veterans healing veterans in the present.
In one scene in a Vietnam jungle, McClelland performed a monologue about feeling “bamboozled” by his country. Amid a “firefight,” he ducked behind a chair and popped up sporadically to deliver his monologue to the audience.
The scene might have been exciting and energizing if it weren’t for the realization that the men were not performing fiction. Many were reliving the most traumatic moments in their lives.
“I can’t breathe,” said Sandy Zuber, who attended the play. “Listening to the experiences of the soldiers who have fought for democracy and freedom, I felt transported into that family’s life. And then I had to take a step back and realize this wasn’t just a script. The wars that they’ve been in were prisons, and now they’re telling their story from prison. There’s just so much unfairness that just hit me.”
“I know what it’s like to be spit on and talked bad about, and all I ever did was follow orders.”
John Robb, a Vietnam veteran, said, “I know what it’s like to be spit on and talked bad about, and all I ever did was follow orders.” His words echoed McClelland’s portrayal of a soldier returning from war’s trauma only to be abused by the citizens for whom he fought.
Juan Carlos Meza played Junior, an Iraq war veteran who came home with a missing arm. Like his father and grandfather, Junior refused to talk about the “individuality,” “dignity,” and “moral compass” he sacrificed for his country.
The play culminated when grandfather, father, and son finally come together to talk about the cost of war. Other veterans joined them onstage, providing a window into a veterans’ support group. Chris Marshall talked about his tour in Nicaragua. Norfleet “Cadillac” Stewart talked about shooting a 4-year-old girl in Vietnam because she had grenades strapped to her body.
“I’ve been one who’s always concealed my emotions,” Stewart said. “But [talking] helps. It relieves a lot of pain I had inside me.”
The veterans also spoke about unemployment, broken promises and addiction.
The play ended with a standing ovation, and audience members mingled with the actors. Cast member Luisa Frasconi said she would carry with her “the inner lives of veterans that we don’t see from the outside, a glimpse of what veterans are carrying in their heart.”
Frasconi recently starred in a production of Othello with the first formerly incarcerated lead in a Marin Shakespeare play.
“It’s so humanizing coming in here,” she said. “There are all these people who are trying to do their best to live their lives.”
At the end, Self, the Veterans Healing Veterans founder, asked the audience, “With the inevitable emotional cost [of war on soldiers and their families], what does it take to change the essence of a man?”
He continued, “We don’t have the answer, but the fact that we’re addressing it [with the play] is the start of a solution because we’re thinking about it. All solutions begin with thinking about them.”
If an incarcerated veteran wants to learn more about VHV or if they or their family may qualify for additional benefits, please contact:
Mary Donovan, Executive Director of VHV
PO BOX 432
San Quentin, CA 94964
The VHV website is veteranshealingveterans.org