Did you know that July 17, 1944, during WWII, 200 Black sailors were killed in explosions that were the fault of the U.S. government? These and others Black sailors were loading munitions onto ships, a job that the government did not train them to do and a job that the white commanding officers were betting on to see who could do it faster. When explosion after explosion caused Black sailors to lose their lives, 50 Black sailors who survived refused to continue loading the munitions until the government train them properly. Those 50 sailors were labeled as mutinous and were imprisoned and treated very harshly. This incident is the focus of “Port Chicago 50,” a play opening tonight at the National Black Theatre at 2031 Fifth Avenue
and 125th Street.
Co-written by David Shackelford and Dennis Rowe, with Rowe as the director and producer, the play will only run tonight through Saturday.
Hal Williams, veteran actor of films, TV and theater, leads the cast as Freddie Meeks, the only man of the 50 men to be pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Williams recently took the time to speak to the AmNews about this project and its importance—especially with the current environment in this country —and his role.
Discussing how he got involved in this project, Williams said, “I got a call from my former stuntman and stand-in, [who] called me and said people were trying to find me. I was going to do business in LA, and they presented the project to me. I had heard about it years ago but never all the details that involved the incident. I came on board hoping that they would be able to lock into a theater. I was willing to be part of the project, it’s something everyone should know about. I was sorry that Freddie Meeks recently passed away, so I didn’t have a chance to talk with him. My character is a strong man. He was part of the group of 50 who stood up and tried to make a difference in the way they were treated. They were charged with mutiny and what they did wasn’t mutinous. They said, ‘Train us because we want to do this, but train us properly or something terrible is going to happen.’”
Reflecting on his acting career, Williams shared, “I’ve been an actor for 46 years. I came to California a single family parent with three small children to pursue my dream. I first did a public service film. I’ve always done theater and been in it since I was a kid. I gave myself three years, and at the end of three years I was doing ‘Sanford & Son’ in 1971.”
Describing his process to prepare for this role, Williams stated, “I went online and did research. I learned as much as I could about this event in history. I grew up in
Columbus, Ohio by the U.S. Army base Fort Hayes. I grew up during WWII and in a military atmosphere in my hometown. I know what happened during that era, and I know what the mood of the country was. It was more patriotic. My parents went to work in the factories turning out products for the military. I didn’t know at the time this incident took place. I didn’t hear anything about it in my household.”
Considering the challenging of doing this play, Williams said, “For me, I grew during that time and I know what the mood of the country was like. The challenge is to now make young people today, know-how important this event was and how these men were treated by our government. Everything was slated against these men by the military. They didn’t take responsibility for these men. They didn’t train them because of their innate racism. They ordered the 50 survivors to clean up the bodies of the Black sailors and didn’t let them grieve or go home.”
Regarding why the public needs to know about this story, Williams remarked, “It’s important because based on what the public is now, all the protests about the police and how Black males today are an endangered species, these men were facing the same thing except it was happening through the federal government. When it comes to police, people of color are dispensable. When you have someone who kills a human being walking away and you say, ‘My life was threatened,’ there is no law that can defend that. We see Black men killed in every conceivable way and people get off. In this play, the crimes against these sailors are blatant. They didn’t train the men, and then the white commanders made bets about how fast the ships can be loaded. The men were charged with mutiny refusing to handle the shells for the big ships. The commanding officer said, ‘You do what I said, or you will be court marshalled.’ No one was sympathetic until Eleanor Roosevelt got involved. These 50 Black sailors were imprisoned and beaten. They treated German prisoners of war better than these 50 sailors.”
Reflecting on the damage to the 50 sailors who survived Williams said, “A lot of damage to the men was emotional. Their families didn’t get the proper compensation for their medical expenses. For the sailors that got killed, the families didn’t get what they were supposed to get. Everything was overshadowed by racism. It was the government’s goal to make the servicemen look like the perpetrators and not the victims.”
Williams hopes the public will come out. “I think hearing what the show is about will make people curious to come and see it,” he said.
Williams will be joined onstage by Oren Williams, Harry Fowler, Shackelford, Anika McFall, Darrell Philip, Howard Lockie, Matt Jennings, Izzy Dixon and CJ Dickinson. The production is presented by Dennis Rowe Entertainment.
Tickets are available online through Eventbrite at www.portchicgo50.eventbrite.com. Group rates are available. For information or to coordinate your group, call 866-514-7250.