“History does not always repeat itself,” wrote science fiction writer and editor of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell Jr. “Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.” That bludgeoning is what it feels like watching Rainbow Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna’s Blue Camp—a tale of queer injustice in the military in the 1960s—in 2019, 8 years after the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and 7 months after the Trump administration’s transgender military ban went into effect.
The play expertly sheds a light on a period of history shrouded in secrecy and obscurity, but perhaps leans too far into the facts at the expense of genuine emotional depth.
The story Blue Camp tells unfolds in early August 1964, during the uneasy period between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as hostility against homosexuals serving in the military was reaching a fever pitch. Our tour guide into this world is Billy (played with undeniable charisma by Moses Bossenbroek), a Black drag queen from Mobile, AL, who had been drafted into the military. He has been nothing but upfront with everyone about his sexuality from the very beginning of his service, but now it’s suddenly a problem, resulting in him being sent to the eponymous Blue Camp, a holding cell of sorts for “queers” awaiting dishonorable discharge.
Blue Camp closes November 24, 2019. Details and tickets
While there, he meets the sassy mechanic Jantzen Hill (Jared Michael Swain), the intellectual proto-gay rights activist Arnold Malloy (Daniel Riker), and the closeted high school star athlete raised by evangelical Christians, Gary Peterson (Lansing O’Leary). Only a few bars separate them from the Green Barracks, which houses a rogues’ gallery comprised of a kleptomaniac (Ivan Carlo), drunk (Noah Beye), serial deserter (Rocky Nunzio), and murderer (Reginald Richard). Both sets of “degenerates” is overseen by Sergeant Swanger (Jared H. Graham) and the Colonel (Craig Houk).
As you can tell, Blue Camp boasts a fairly large cast, but Caggiano and Hanna and director Christopher Janson find moments to break them into smaller groups in sometimes surprising combinations and allows each actor to have his moment. The interactions between Graham’s surly Sergeant and Bossenbroek’s sassy, Southern Billy are particularly charming, as is Houk’s outsized performance as the Colonel, a stand-in for all the toxic masculinity and ruthlessness associated with the American military.
Caggiano and Hanna’s script contains a surprising amount of humor, particularly in the form of the many one-liners thrown out by Billy and the verbal sparring between the Green and Blue camps. But the stakes and tension are ratcheted up when the Army institutes a policy of “reclamation” in which they pick through the soon-to-be-discharged soldiers to find the ones who could be assets in the imminent war in Vietnam, knowing full well that if they manage to survive combat, they’ll simply be dishonorably discharged anyway upon arriving back home. It’s heartbreaking to watch those who are “successfully” reclaimed congratulate each other on regaining the “right” to serve their country and earn the GI Bill, knowing that there isn’t a happy outcome in their futures either way.
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The playwrights give themselves a lot of ground to cover, and though their attempt to give each character a backstory is admirable, it comes in the form of a lot of exposition. Once you add in tangents like a baseball game between the camps and a drag show off-base, there’s little room left to go as deep emotionally as the script goes wide. As can sometimes happen with documentary theatre, there’s a lot more telling in Blue Camp than showing, particularly in the case of a romance that feels wildly underdeveloped. Perhaps if the playwrights had trimmed the number of characters and vignettes slightly, they would have been able to craft more fully fleshed-out characters rather than the “types” they sometimes slip into.
Blue Camp succeeds in revealing a period of time and cast of characters long overlooked and/or forgotten by many Americans. The experience of watching these men struggling to stay in an organization that so vehemently doesn’t want them is exasperating and heartbreaking, but it’s the contemporary resonance of the piece that truly makes for an affecting evening of theatre.
Blue Camp by Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna. Directed by Christopher Janson. Featuring Noah Beye, Moses Bossenbroek, Ivan Carlo, Rick Foucheux, James Gardiner, Jared H. Graham, Craig Houck, Rocky Nunzio, Lansing O’Leary, Reginald Richard, Daniel Riker, and Jared Michael Swain. Set designer: Simone Schneeberg. Costume designer: T.F. Dubois. Sound designer/assistant stage manager: Elliot Lanes. Lighting designer: Elliott Shugoll. Movement director: Logan Beveridge. Dramaturg: T.P. Huth. Production/stage manager: Deborah Gur. Produced by Rainbow Theatre Project. Reviewed by John Bavoso.
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