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Historic play highlights racism, broken promises

LINDA ARMSTRONG Special to the AmNews | 4/3/2012, 12:11 p.m.

There is a historic story being told at the Castillo Theatre on 42nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues. It is a moving, beautiful and intensely acted story that completely succeeds in its effort to enlighten the audience about a part of female African-American history that undoubtedly most of us are not aware of.

"Court-Martial at Fort Devens," presented by the Castillo Theatre in association with Woodie King Jr.'s New Federal Theatre, tells the important story of four young Black women who joined the Army with the promise of being trained as medical technicians and then having roles as nurses in the hospital at Fort Devens. This was the promise and the understanding, but it wasn't the reality.

Playwright Jeffrey Sweet brilliantly gives a chronological account of the racism and injustice these members of the WACs (the Women's Army Corp) faced. You feel their degradation and their indignity in response to the blatant racist beliefs and acts of the white Col. Kimball.

The play, set in 1944 and 1945, first presents these women as people from different small towns who came for a chance to have a better life. They joined the Army for a chance to find a sense of importance as Army WACs. When these ladies never get the opportunity to become nurses and are reduced to cleaning instead, they have varied reactions. Two decide to take a stand and refuse to work, which results in their being court-martialed. What happens during their trial is the uncovering of the racism they faced through the words and actions of the colonel. The NAACP gets involved and a lawyer defends the young ladies in front of a military panel.

The drama that occurs throughout this play will have you engrossed, angry and outraged, but you will also find yourself absolutely captivated by the intense, flawless performances of this cast. Nambi E. Kelley plays Ginny Boyd and Eboni Witcher portrays Johnnie Mae. During the trial scene, both of these actresses are entirely living their characters and you see this through their body language, focus and facial expressions in reaction to what the defense and prosecuting attorneys say.

Bill Tatum is marvelous as the old-school racist colonel and just as powerful as the army prosecutor. Evander Duck is gripping as NAACP attorney Julian Rainey. Emma O'Donnell is poignant as the white Lt. Lawson. She trained the WACs and feels they should be allowed to nurse the soldiers, but she can't rock the boat when the colonel commands otherwise. Gillian Glasco is stirring as a new Black female Lt. Stoney, who is put in charge of the Black WACs but, of course, has no power and is treated with as little respect by the colonel as everyone else is. Keona Welch gives a strong performance as Gertrude, and Alia Chapman is memorable as Ruby, the other two WACs. The direction by Mary Beth Easley is on point.

This piece of history is only playing through April 1. Its final performance will also be a benefit. For tickets, call (212) 353-1176.