(Cover Photo: African American women of the WAC during World War II. For some, the experience was denigrating. Their experience is the focus of Jeffrey Sweet's "COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS" presented by AFD Theatre in Arlington, MA. during March, 2024. Courtesy of the National Archives at College Park)
By Kevin T. Baldwin
Written by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Lisa Miller-Gillespie
Cast Includes: Trisha Barungi, Victoria Lee, June Dever, Sally Jean-Baptiste, Michelle Mount, Angela Courtney Rossi. Paul Benford-Bruce, Jon Nuquist, John Pease and Claude Del.
AFD THEATRE, 22 Academy Street, Arlington, MA. 02476
March 1, 2024 through March 17, 2024
(Contact Box Office for Exact Times)
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Jeffrey Sweet's "COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS" is based on a true story of four courageous Black women.
Serving as soldiers at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, these Americans chose to be court-martialed rather than report for duty as maids, when they had been recruited and trained as medical technicians.
They hoped to fight their racial and sexual discrimination in the spirit of integrity, strength and unity.
"For history buffs, additional material about the events can be found in Sandra Bolzenius' book "Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took on the Army in WWII."
Jeffrey's Sweet's play, which pre-dates the book, focuses on two of the women and their court-martial."
However, a racist colonel decided that in was not appropriate for Black women to be treating white soldiers and ordered them to report to housekeeping duties.
The women went on strike, but when threatened with court-martial, most chose to obey orders rather than sully their military record.
However, several of the women chose to go to court to fight this racial and sexual discrimination in the spirit of integrity, strength and unity, with the hope for real change.
THE TRUE STORY:
In the Spring of 1944, 60 African American women, all members of a segregated unit of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) in World War II, were sent to Fort Devens, outside of Boston, for training as medical technicians.
After completing skilled training, their assignment was changed to scrubbing floors.
After a courageous decision to go on strike, they were threatened with court-martial.
Their crime – insubordination.
Their defense was that they were being discriminated against because of sex and race.
The NAACP provided a top Boston lawyer, Julian Rainey, to defend the women (in the play, we see two of the defendants).
An experienced army lawyer represented the government.
The play bristles with prejudice.
An army colonel, who ran Lovell Hospital on the base, where the WACs worked, protested that Black women could not be trained as medical techs or treat white soldiers.
He quickly re-assigned them to jobs as maids with army stripes on their sleeves.
They marched out.
A general arrived and threatened them; most went back to work.
The two who did not were warned that they faced poor outcomes in a court martial, but they insisted on one, in a spirit of hope, integrity, and strength.
The play "COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS" by Jeffrey Sweet asks the question: why the army segregated African Americans in the war and continually discriminate against them i.e. Tuskegee Airmen.
As lawyer Rainey wails in the trial, the U.S. was the only allied power in the war that segregated its troops.
Legally, the trial hands on the issue of insubordination, but morally and ethnically, it was about race and sex discrimination.
Historically, there were four defendants: Alice Young (Ginny in the play), Johnnie Mae Murphy, Mary Green and Anna Morrison.
“Glory in Their Spirit” is the title of the original book by Sandra M. Bolzenius which first brought this historical incident to light.
In “Glory in Their Spirit” historian and army specialist Bolzenius reveals the tensions surrounding the military regarding race and sex during World War II.
Bolzenius writes that while the war required the service of women and Blacks, much of the public saw them as unfit for military service, and that the army “did not have an adequate template, military or civilian, to guide it in its dealings with African American women.”
The Black WACs at Fort Devens, therefore, saw the strike as “their best option in a system that failed to adequately recognize them as members of the armed forces.”
On March 20, after just two days of testimony, the four women were found guilty and sentenced to one year of imprisonment and hard labor.
But thanks to the efforts of civil rights leaders, the Black press, and allies in Congress, the army overturned their convictions.
The women returned to duty in an army that remained segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order integrating all U.S. forces.
Excerpt from HistoryNet Book Review: "Glory in Their Spirit" by Sandra M. Bolzenius (historynet.com)
Directed by Lisa Miller-Gillespie, an experienced cast has been assembled for the AFD THEATRE production of "COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS," featuring Trisha Barungi, Victoria Lee, June Dever, Sally Jean-Baptiste, Michelle Mount, Angela Courtney Rossi. Paul Benford-Bruce, Jon Nuquist, John Pease and Claude Del.
Tickets for the show are now on sale at www.afdtheatre.org/buy-tickets or by calling the box office at # 781-646-5922 or emailing it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets prices are $25 but group discounts are available.
The theatre is located at 22 Academy Street, Arlington, MA, right behind Town Hall in Arlington Center, across the street from the Senior Center and the Arlington Center for the Arts.
On street parking is available, and the theatre may be reached via the 77 Bus from Harvard Square.
The theatre is accessible via a handicapped lift at the street level, and wheelchair seating may be reserved by contacting the box office.
Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
(Photo: Soldiers of the 6888th marching in formation. Photo Credit: Anonymous (c. 1945). PD-U.S. Government)
ABOUT THE SHOW
In Jeffrey Sweet's "COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS" when a group of young Black women join the Women's Army Corps during WWII, they're promised training as medical technicians.
But a racist Colonel at Fort Devens has other ideas, and demotes them to cleaning duty.
The battle of wills leads to a confrontation in which the colonel makes comments so offensive that the WACs pull an immediate strike.
Though a visiting general is able to compel most of the women to go back to work, two refuse and are held for trial.
Defended by a civilian lawyer who's never tried a court-martial, they embark on an uphill fight to change the status quo.
Based on a true story, "COURT MARTIAL AT FORT DEVENS" is a gripping and inspiring drama exploring the complexities of standing up for one's rights.
ARLINGTON FRIENDS OF THE DRAMA, now known as AFD THEATRE, was founded in 1923 and is one of the ten oldest continually operating community theatre groups in the country. Now located in the former St. John's Episcopal Church, which has been extensively updated and made handicap-accessible. AFD THEATRE is among the finest area playhouses for actors, directors, production designers and audiences to produce and enjoy live theatre.
About AFD THEATRE Seasons
AFD THEATRE puts on four productions: two musicals and two straight plays. AFD THEATRE holds auditions months ahead, and rehearse evenings and weekends. AFD THEATRE welcomes you to join the fun: help build sets, make costumes, do lights. Usher or sell concessions. AFD THEATRE is a community endeavor that seeks to engage all ages in the fun and exciting act of putting on a play!
22 Academy Street
Arlington, MA 02476