It has been more than a generation since the unspeakable horrors of the Vietnam War last occupied a paramount position in the collective consciousness of New York City.
Now, a scrappy little theater company that's been dubbed the “History Channel on Stage” is revisiting that ugly conflict and plumbing the long-buried memories of its toxic toll.
Why now? Veterans Day is Nov. 11. It is a time for remembrance. The combatants, to this day, are haunted by war wounds, both physical and psychic. Yet to millennials, Vietnam is but a chapter in a history book, as relevant to their lives as the Spanish-American War of 1898.Video: Christina Scotti
Hudson Warehouse is out to change that dynamic. The resident theater company of Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side is recounting the real-life stories of seven veterans who served in-country in the 1960s and 1970s in a 70-minute, multi-media theatrical presentation.
It's also attempting a major act of historical redemption:
“After World War II, our soldiers came home to a hero's welcome, and strangers kissed them and hugged them and embraced them and thanked them for their service to our country,” said Susane Lee, the company's executive director.
“But our Vietnam veterans came home in shame to face people's anger and belligerence — as if somehow, they had become the bad guys, and they were shunned from society, disrespected, and literally spat upon,” she added. “Now, it is time to give them a hero's welcome, too.”
To do that, Lee located seven vets — six men and one woman, four of them New Yorkers — and conducted and transcribed dozens of hours of audiotaped interviews. Much of what she heard was harrowing. There would be no paraphrasing. No poetic license.
“I need to honor their words,” she said.
So Lee used only verbatim quotes to write, create and produce “Vietnam: Soldiers Tell Their Stories 40 Years Later,” which will be performed at the Goddard Riverside Bernie Wohl Center, on Columbus Avenue at 91st Street, on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free for all veterans. Tickets for everyone else: $10 or $15.
The show is built around the seven vets played by seven actors cast to relate their wartime experiences. As they spin poignant, or chilling, first-person tales of Vietnam, more than 250 images of their time in the war, and the places and subjects of which they speak, are projected on a large screen above and behind them.
The slides help interweave their personal stories with the historical, political, social and cultural context of the war, as do the voices of three narrators who utter the words of the conflict's architects, like Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, and its chroniclers, like Walter Cronkite.
“People may say, 'I don't want to hear about war,' or 'War makes me cringe,'” said Susan Macaluso, the community arts director at Goddard Riverside, which provides services to almost 100 veterans via senior programs, homeless outreach, mental health counseling and supportive housing residences.
“But this is not just a story about war. This is about the real-life stories of individual human beings in the war, and each story is a living veteran, and they really do come to life, and you come away appreciating them, you come away knowing them,” Macaluso added.A HORRIBLE HOMECOMING
Inevitably, the stories often involve matters of life and death. Consider former Technical Sergeant Tom Pellaton, a draftee who served in the 101st Airborne Division starting in 1970 when he was 26 years old. In Lee's script, based on her interviews with him, he tells of a helicopter combat mission that ended in tragedy.
“We were shot at, and the door gunner, a bullet went right through his brain,” Pellaton said. “He died in my arms.” It became his grim task to wash out the victim's helmet so it could be examined for faults because the headgear was supposed to protect him.
Back in America, Pellaton, now 74, had what he called in an interview with The West Side Spirit “a very terrible reentry.”
“I was in my uniform at the airport in Seattle in 1971, I was just sitting there, and someone came up to me, and said, 'You're a murderer,' and then he spat on me and walked away,” he said.
He rebuilt his life. For a time, he worked as a maître d' at the Carlyle Hotel. In 1991, he was ordained at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and served as associate rector at St. Michael's Church on Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. He's now retired, but works as a guest preacher in Harlem. Oh, and he sings German operatic arias in benefit concerts for churches in a group called “Ensemble Paradis.”
But Vietnam won't leave him alone: Pellaton suffers from diabetes and prostate cancer related to Agent Orange exposure. Notwithstanding those disabilities, he's always wanted to go back, and in February next year, he'll return for the first time since 1971.
Lee's interviews and the Hudson Warehouse production played a role in his decision. “It brought back things I probably had to deal with,” he said. “It was a combination of affirmation and memory, and being able to deal with the past in a safe way.”
Adds Pellaton, “I always felt it was such a beautiful country — except for the fact that all the people were killing each other.”
In Lee's script, former Airman 1st Class James Britton describes a visit to a village near Khe Sanh right after a Viet Cong attack in 1966. He was 22 at the time and deployed as an Air force combat cameraman.
“The bodies had already been taken out,” he recalled. “But I could see women's hair all over the place, pieces of stuff, and I said to myself, 'This is why we're here. We're here to help these people.' I was totally wrong.”
Now 75 years old, living on the Upper West Side and retired from his video production company, Britton said in an interview with The Spirit that he'll never forget his flight to San Francisco en route to Vietnam when a stranger in the next seat began shouting at him, “Killer, killer, killer.”
Back stateside two years later, he was told to dispense with his uniform so he wouldn't be heckled.
Over all the intervening decades, Britton said he never received a word of praise for his willingness to enter the service of his nation. Until a couple of years ago when he was waiting in line at a little deli on 100th Street near Central Park West.
“The outside of my wallet had the words, 'Proud to be a Veteran' inscribed on it,” he recalled. “When I opened it, the man behind me simply said, 'Thank you for your service.' It was the very first time anyone had ever thanked me in 50 years.”
Nicholas Martin-Smith, the producing artistic director of Hudson Warehouse, is the director of the Veterans Day performances. He founded the company in 2004.
Hudson Warehouse says the one-night-only performance at the Bernie Wohl Center, on the day before the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, is only the first stop.
“We want to take it into the city's schools and veteran's hospitals and community organizations and historical organizations,” Lee says. “I look upon these veterans as heroes, and “And I'm overjoyed to be able to tell their stories onstage.”