Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Play Keeps Iowans’ Vietnam Experiences Alive

More than 30 years have passed since the United States ended its military involvement in Vietnam, but for those who fought in the war, the memories will never end. Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien captures the figurative weight of this emotional burden in his award-winning novel “The Things They Carried,” a fictionalized account of a foot soldier’s experiences during the Vietnam War.

In 1989, Marilyn Shaw of Cedar Falls wanted to preserve these memories through the oral tradition, which she adapted into an oral-interpretive play, “Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience.” The play will be brought to life for the fourth time, the latest run scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at the Theater Cedar Rapids. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m.
Shaw, a 57-year-old professor of communication studies at the University of Northern Iowa, was first drawn to the notion of capturing the stories of Iowans who served in Vietnam from her daughter.

“When my daughter, a sophomore in high school at the time (1989), came home and asked me what I knew about the Vietnam War, I didn’t really know what to tell her,” Shaw told the Iowa Independent in a phone interview. “All I remember was watching the body counts on the television with my parents every night and being afraid, but not knowing why I was afraid.”

In light of this experience, Shaw asked her students in an oral interpretation class at the UNI what they knew about the Vietnam War, and most of them could only recount a few paragraphs they read in their high school textbooks. This sense of historic amnesia inspired Shaw to interview 28 people, and she interwove their stories into nine character archetypes for her play. Through her experiences during the interview process, Shaw confides that she learned three valuable lessons. “Although each person I interviewed had different personal experiences with the war, a number of universal themes did manifest,” Shaw said. “The one motif that kept resurfacing in my mind is that it’s b to hate the war, but you shouldn’t hate the warrior.”

Something else that Shaw learned was that each and every one of the men and women she interviewed, despite being reluctant to speak at first, was very much dedicated to the concept of service. “I think this may have to do with their Midwest upbringing. Either way they saw serving in Vietnam as their job and duty to their country,” Shaw said. “They were aware of the tensions stateside while serving, but didn’t feel they weren’t appreciated. What really surprised me was that all but one of those interviewed said they would go back and do it all over again if they had to.”

When they were asked why, they said: “So their children and their children’s children, or anybody else for that matter, wouldn’t have to do it.”

The initial run of the play in 1990 toured for about 10 months, traversing 25 locations in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri and culminating with a July 3 performance on a grassy knoll by the memorial wall in Washington, D.C. “It was amazing to see the play performed in a public arena and to see the reflection of the play off the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” Shaw said.
Four years later, the cast was asked to perform at the rededication of the Iowa Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Des Moines over Memorial Day weekend. Matthew Ford, one of the cast members of the ’94 play, will direct the play in Cedar Rapids. The show's 10th-anniversary cast performed it over Memorial Day weekend in 2000 while the traveling wall was displayed in Cedar Falls.

Shaw is pleased that her play goes on and attributes its 18-year lifespan to weathering the test of time. “Whenever dealing with oral history in stories, one of two things make it historical in my mind: whether it’s educational or a form of therapeutic value,” Shaw said. “'Iowa Stories’ does both. It not only helps educate the public, but it served a therapeutic value for the veterans I interviewed, giving them a chance to share and unburden their stories.”

Proceeds from the play will go to Vietnam Veterans of America #568 in Cedar Rapids, who in turn are passing on at least $4,500 to Vets Helping Vets, the Iowa City group grappling with veteran homelessness. Tom Kelly and Len McClellan, co-founders of Vets Helping Vets, will be introduced at Thursday’s performance and will be presented with the donation.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

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