Thousands of young American women were sent to Vietnam — at least 7,500, according to one source. Whatever the total number was, if you don’t think we talk enough about their stories, then In Their Footsteps is a play you want to know about.
Presented by Infinite Variety Productions (IVP), a NY-based nonprofit founded in 2011, In Their Footsteps is a documentary play that recreates the memories of five of those 7,500+ women, including three civilians and two military officers: Ann Kelsey (US Army Special Services librarian, 1969-70); Judy Jenkins Gaudino (US Army Special Services recreation specialist, 1967-70); Jeanne “Sam” Christie (part of the Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program of the Red Cross, a.k.a, “Donut Dollies”); Lily Adams (US Army Nurse) and Doris “Lucki” Allen (US Army Intelligence Specialist).
The idea of the play is to use the words of these five women to illuminate the human side, the women’s side, of America’s place in the Vietnam War. IVP accomplishes this simply: the set is composed of just five blocks constantly moved and arranged to signify bunkers and rooftops and military vehicles. The play is the handiwork of IVP Founder Ashley Adelman, working together with Kelly Teaford and Caroline Peters.
In Their Footsteps will offer performances at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., NYC) on Fri., July 13 and Sat., July 14, before leaving next month for The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
For this interview, we spoke with Adelman as well as Martha Kuhns, National President of the Women Overseas Service League (WOSL), with additional comments provided by Edie Meeks, a board member of The Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation (VWMF).
For tickets to In Their Footsteps, click here.
Clyde Fitch Report: What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Martha Kuhns: As a nurse, I obviously took care of many patients. Many of these patients were very young — my age or younger, as I was only 23 years old myself. Someone asked me how it felt taking care of patients with severe wounds who were so young, just as I was young.
Ashley Adelman: I was talking about In Their Footsteps and someone said “I’m anti-war. Why would I want to hear a story about a war zone?” I get asked this a lot. The answer I give comes from one of the characters in the play, Judy Jenkins Gaudino. Judy signed up for one year and stayed for three. She felt the men needed her, and she says “You have to separate the war from the warrior.” These women not only did the jobs they were hired to do, but did the jobs beyond expectations. These women dealt with big issues, such as sexual harassment, the loss of friends and other concerns that occur for females in a male-oriented environment. These women were thrown into a world beyond what they were used to and they not only survived but even with the emotional scars from their time in Vietnam, they continue to thrive today. This is a play about them, not the war.
CFR: What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
MK: “Did you take care of soldiers that had been shot?”
Edie Meeks: “You were a nurse in Vietnam — what was it like?” There’s no one-line answer. No soundbite. The whole experience was so life-changing I usually just turn away from the questioner.
AA: “Why do you only do stories based on women’s history? Where are the stories about men in history?” I usually answer: “It’s called, um, history class?” But I always add, “There are tons of stories still not being told about many important male figures, so go out and tell those stories, too.” But I think of the amount of women I pass in my everyday journeys, of how many of them are common household names. Why are the history books mostly the stories of men? IVP is trying to even out the playing field.
Why are the history books mostly the stories of men?
MK: “Did you get to go sightseeing while in Vietnam?”
AA: The craziest question I get when creating history-based theater is “Why did you decide to say this character does this? That wasn’t the right choice for the character arc.” I always look at them and repeat “This is theater about an actual person or true event” — or, in the case of In Their Footsteps, this is theater that uses words from the source. And then they just stare at me. Sometimes I think that’s because there is an order to some scripts — a beginning, middle and end. With a script based on a person’s life, stories get messy, things don’t get resolved and, as the playwright, it’s not my place to judge or try to force a message on their lives.
CFR: What advice can groups like WOSL and VWMF offer IVP in terms of how they interact with different communities?
MK: There are veterans from many different eras. As such, they each have differences as to what they experienced, but there are similarities of all veterans. When producing any programming, they need to speak with their target audience prior to their event. There are so many veterans with traumatic head injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that anything violent or very emotional can cause issues.
CFR: Ashley, IVP also tours. Talk about doing theater beyond the NYC bubble.
AA: Most of our shows either start in NYC with a run with The Kraine Theater, then tour to either veteran organizations around DC or historical societies around the tri-state area. One of my favorite performances was the show Censored on Final Approach by Phylis Ravel at The American Airpower Museum. Her play is about The Women Airforce Service Pilots from World War II. The Airpower Museum is a World War II hangar and we were able to use an old World War II airplane in the production. Besides quite a few performances around DC (and readings in front of The Vietnam Women’s Memorial for their Veterans Day storytelling event), many of our plays have had workshopped productions at The Wyoming Theatre Festival, which brings artists to enjoy the beauty of Wyoming. IVP has been there a few years with pieces such as East of Heart Mountain by Edward Allen Baker. My second summer at the festival, one of the residents in the town we performed at waited for me. She had found a suitcase of letters from a local female who listened to the shortwave radio, heard Tokyo Rose and the POWs and wrote to the parents of the prisoners of war. The suitcase was filled with thank-you letters from those families. No one in the town ever knew what this woman had done. Was this a play, she asked? IVP commissioned Ed and the next year it was.
For In Their Footsteps, we only used text from oral histories we conducted with those five women. The script looks at the human side of war: What does one do on Christmas in a war zone? How were the women able to keep doing their jobs even in the hardest times? What was the heartbreak to find out their own government had lied to them?
After our run at 59E59 Theaters, we’re headed to Scotland to perform at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
CFR: Do women experience war and its repercussions and results in a way that is at all different from men? If no, do men understand this? (And if yes, do men understand this?)
“I do think women experience war differently.”
EM: I can only speak from the perspective of an Army nurse in 1968. Our experience was totally different. We were almost the “negative ” of the picture the guys had. We saw no victories. Only the wounded. When a Huey Helicopter was heard the guys thought of rescue, of safety. The nurses thought “Oh, no! More wounded.” The frustration the nurses had in not being able to fix these young men was huge.
CFR: Does IVP present post-show programming?
AA: IVP always offers talkbacks if the venue allows. I think it is an important part of the theater experience. For In Their Footsteps, we’ve had Judy and Ann come and talk. Since Lily and Lucki live on the West Coast, several other women who served have been gracious enough to come and talk. (Lucki has a great book called Three Days Past Yesterday: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Incredibility that you can purchase on line.)
CFR: How can all the creative arts — not just theater, but music, dance and visual art — do more to honor, and to teach our children about, the women who have served our military?
MK: By using music and visual art written or drawn by women veterans. The Veterans Administration publishes a magazine that contains short stories and poetry done by veterans, some of which are by women. I am sure there are many others who are writing, performing dance or making artwork of whom we are not aware. Also, women can be used as speakers at events and to tell their stories. Putting a woman’s face to war can help children understand that all of us have a part in protecting our freedoms. Children need to understand: freedom is truly not free.
AA: Learn more about the women from back then, before them, or those fighting in the armed services today. And if you have an opportunity (and they feel comfortable sharing), sit down and ask them about their time in service. Then share their stories. That is the best way to teach and to honor. The best way to story-tell is through the arts, whether that is music, visual, dance or theater. Because once these women are gone, their stories, their advice and lessons that could be learned all go with them. Art is how we keep it alive.