“I truly believe the Soldiers of the Bulldog Brigade would be truly
enlightened by your performance.”
So began an email I received on March 10th – and thought was a joke – until I called Sgt. Rena Key, who sent it and who runs the Equal Opportunity Program for The Bulldog Brigade at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. She plans events to honor holidays and ethnic backgrounds of the soldiers to create and foster diversity and inclusion on the base. So she hired me to perform my solo show SHE’S HISTORY! The Most Dangerous Women In America, Then and Now….for the Women’s History Month Observance. What an honor!
Everyone keeps asking how she found me. It is a bit unexpected – a Women’s History Show on a military base. … I am registered with the National Women’s History Project (www.nwhp.org) and she found me on their website.
She only gave me two weeks’ notice, and being a Cultural HERstorian, March – (Women’s History Month) is my busiest time. I am right in the middle of a four-week performance run and both of my daughters have their birthdays in March. Yes, I made my own history – and my oldest was turning 18. A biggie. I hate to leave them on their own during the school week. I had not taken the show on the road yet. But of course I said yes. And the thought of me – a loud-mouthed left-winged liberal Jewish Feminist on a military base in mostly right wing, Republican conservative Texas was just irresistible. So, after many emails with the sergeant, it was decided. I would perform at 10:30AM on Thursday March 24th. The audience consisted of active duty soldiers – male and female – 18 to 50. The event also would be open to the community and would include a Fabric Of Women’s History fashion show – yes a fashion show – and a drill by the female soldiers of The Bulldog Brigade.
Arriving in El Paso from Los Angeles for a 10:30AM show required flying in the day before, with a connection through Phoenix. How will I manage traveling with a slide projector, speakers, laptop, costumes, props and a few personal items without checking anything in? Cannot risk the airlines losing my show! I will put the costumes and props and my personal things in one small rolling suitcase and my projector and laptop with my purse in the carry-on. It will be a challenge.
In the middle of all this of course are the birthdays and my almost-18-year-old is holding her breath daily waiting to hear from colleges. My house is bursting at the seams with expectations, anticipation, activities and those ever-present hormones, which I cannot seem to dodge. Tuesday night we celebrate my daughter’s birthday. She is now legal, can vote, sign for herself and is officially an adult. We order chicken soup and potato pancakes (her favorite) for dinner and watch “Dancing With the Stars.” She is happy. I am all packed and ready to go in the morning. My just turned 14-year-old is disappointed to learn I will only be gone for one night. Hmmm. The morning comes and my 14-year-old tries to go to school wearing an inappropriate (sexy) shirt that I have already taken away from her, and she had the audacity – and stupidity – to retrieve it. When I order her to “take it off and leave it in my room,” she goes ballistic, banging on my closed bedroom door and yelling — resulting in her being grounded for the weekend. Ahhh, motherhood. She skulks off to school and I am off to the airport with my show-in-a-suitcase, praying that I will be allowed on without checking my bags.
Schlep schlep schlep, lug lug lug – this is the travel theme for me. I hold my breath at the entrance to the jet way – will the agent let me and my very full second carry on item containing my slide projector and laptop – crucial show elements – aboard? I am sweating, heart racing….I get through. Ahhhhhhh.
The flight to Phoenix is fine – but I accidentally spill my water in my bag housing my slide projector! Panic-stricken, I mop up what I can and pray for technological intervention. SHE’S HISTORY! is a multi-media show with about 88 slides of many of the fabulous females. I make the connection in Phoenix to El Paso, and the plane is a teeny tiny cigar plane on which my very full show-in-a-suitcase will not fit. I have to leave it at the bottom of the jet way and am promised it will be there when I arrive in El Paso.
Seated in a teeny tiny windowless window seat that does not go back, I talk myself out of a claustrophobia attack. It’s only a 50-minute flight. I have traveled to London from Los Angeles for 13 hours with two toddlers (which inspired the title of my first play: Cheerios In My Underwear). But it was in first class. Oh – those were the days…actually I would rather do this than that as on the other end of THAT trip was horrible jet lag for days with toddlers, icky English weather and the prison that was my mother-in-law’s flat, which she ran with anal retentive intensity. On the other end of this was a performance of my show for active-duty soldiers. As I eat my squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I contemplate the sudden turn of events in my life and again thank my deadbeat ex-husband. If he hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be doing this. I work on the school program I am creating about the 1800s, and barely get started when we begin our descent.
My show-in-a suitcase and I DO arrive safely and intact at El Paso. Everywhere I look I see military – the governor’s welcoming announcement over the airport public address invites us to stop all soldiers we see and thank them. I will.
I roll my oh so heavy and awkward show-in-a-suitcase and carry on containing my slide projector, laptop, etcetera out of the airport and there she is! I was not expecting fatigues – but she is a soldier. The sergeant I have been talking for two weeks. We hug, she takes my bags and we get in the car and proceed to the base, which she said was five minutes away but actually is more like twenty. She is my tour guide to military life, explaining the quarters, barracks, buildings, lingo. I have never been on a base, and it is starkly barren and dull and sterile and male. Oh so male. She casually mentions that she is shipping out to Afghanistan in September.
I wanted to check out the performing space – to see how I would set up the show. We arrive at our final destination. The dining hall – or as they call it – the defect. Yes, I am performing in the dining hall. There is a beautiful theatre on the base but……
I am immediately intimidated by all the soldiers in their fatigues and struck by the institutionalism of it all. I didn’t know WHAT to expect. SO many YOUNG men and woman. All so very friendly and curious and helpful and all calling me Ma’am.
The sergeant could not have been more accommodating, carrying my bag and offering me food from the dining hall, which smells like a yummy hot dog and reminds me of college and high school. She is a single working mother of three and already my hero. She volunteers to go back to the car to get my slide projector and laptop so I can have a technical run-through, for which I am very grateful. She enlists some soldiers to help move tables and we figure out where and how, and my prayers were answered. The slide projector turns on and all goes well. She tells me she is expecting 50-100 people.
I am starving and exhausted but really happy that my equipment made it unscathed. She finally drives me back to my hotel – it is now going on 8:00PM and I am fried. My daughter calls me distraught. She has been rejected from another college. She wants to chat and wants me to comfort her. I cannot. I feel guilty. The sergeant and I discuss motherhood and the challenges our ovaries have presented us. We have now bonded. I get up the courage to ask her about Libya and we have a very interesting conversation. It is fascinating for me to hear her point of view, which I expected to be pro-war. We agree she will pick me up at 8:30AM for the 10:30AM show and promises a stop at Starbucks on the way.
I check in – a nice Radisson and cannot remember the last time I was alone in a hotel. I am exhausted, excited and elated to learn there is a nice little restaurant right there at the hotel. I unload my stuff – grab my script, leave my phone in the room and go to the restaurant, where I immediately order a well-deserved $8 glass of Chardonnay. Three sips later I am tipsy and looking forward to my enchiladas, which do not disappoint. I devour my meal while working on my script and go for a nice walk around the hotel after dinner. A pool! Two pools – one indoor and a hot tub! Oh! Did not bring my bathing suit.
Back to the room; check on the girls – my elder at work – she got a part-time job (at my insistence) at the Banana Republic at the mall, which is less than a mile away – walking distance. She tells me she got a ride there and back as there was a MAJOR rainstorm. The petulant 14-year-old is tight lipped but home safe and sound. I take a long hot bath in a very short tub, and pass out with a 6:30AM alarm set.
Two seconds later it is 6:30AM. Well actually 5:30AM, with the time change. I am dragging my ass but still do my Pilates, shower, run some lines, watch the news that is mostly about Elizabeth Taylor passing away and pack up. I am a nervous wreck as I order breakfast and wait for the sergeant. She is late, which gives me time to print out my boarding pass for the after-show flight, and finally we are off to the base.
The doors are locked – all sorts of security on the base – I noticed when I left the building the doors would automatically lock. The sergeant is bummed and begins banging on the door. We get in and begin setting up and it is like any other show, busy, chaotic and exciting. The sergeant is very much in charge and starts the rehearsal. The program includes a “Fabric of Women’s History” fashion show with six female civilian volunteer models. Ahhh, a fashion show. Why is it that we as a culture cannot seem to have a serious conversation about women without attire creeping in? One volunteer model flaked, so the sergeant takes her place, changing out of her fatigues into a beautiful colonial cream-colored belle of the ball costume. She is sexy and feminine. The costumes, donated by the Old Fort Bliss Museum are fabulous and authentic.
This is part of the narrative that the sergeant crafted with the help of the National Women’s History Project:
We are here today to honor, celebrate, and relive some of the historical and present day contributions of women. We are reminded of their courage in their struggle to change the hearts and minds of people around the world. As stated by the national women’s project – although women’s history is intertwined with the history shared with men, several factors – social, religious, economic, and biological –have worked to create a unique sphere of women’s history. The stories of women’s achievements are integral to the fabric of our history. Today, let’s take a glimpse of Women’s strength through fabric. (SOLDIERS IN VINTAGE ATTIRE WALK OUT AND DO MODEL STANCES AS NARRATOR READS THE FOLLOWING): Designer Katherine Hamnett once said, “Clothes create a wordless means of communication that we all understand.” Today the soldiers of the Bulldog Brigade will exemplify women’s tenacity, courage, and creativity throughout the centuries- displaying fashion of women’s clothing truly a tremendous source of strength. Let’s give a round of applause to the Southern belles, the flapper dresses, the wide leg bell bottoms, the 1920’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s, 70’s and clothing associated with those who uphold the supreme law of the land- our Supreme Court judges.
I am moved by the sincerity of it all and to my surprise, really enjoy the fashion show. Then it’s time for The Soldier’s Creed. Several female soldiers in full army fatigue carrying rifles file in and re-enact some sort of drill that is very loud and scary to me. One at a time, they shout out “I AM A UNITED STATES SOLDIER! I WILL NEVER LEAVE MY POST” and similar sayings. It is all so foreign to me. I am a military virgin after all. It is very serious and aggressive. They are trained to fight. That is very clear. But they are so young and innocent under all that artillery. I cannot believe I am here.
“Where is the audience?” I ask the sergeant, as we are five minutes from show time and the only people there are a few soldiers and those participating in the show. The sergeant is embarrassed. The turnout is not what she expected. A few people file in and the show begins. I am introduced and I perform. All goes well despite the failure of my body mike — I am a trained theatre professional and I project. The whole time I was performing, I was acutely aware of my audience. The show is chock full of true stories of incredibly courageous women – real fighters – who faced obstacles, beat down barriers and struggled so much at great personal sacrifice. As I looked into the faces of these military women, I could not help but wonder what kind of challenges they experience daily as females in the military. I always feel an enormous responsibility to the women I portray and talk about when I do the show. I was absolutely struck by the meaningfulness of this performance for this audience. More soldiers filled the dining hall, and when I finish and take my bow – I get a standing ovation. I am very touched. Then – the sergeant takes the mike and proceeds to have a plaque presentation. I was shocked and moved to tears when she presented a plaque to me.
3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team
1st Armored Division
Certificate of Appreciation
Is Awarded to
For your diligence and loyalty displayed through your willing support of the 3rd IBCT, 1st AD Women’s History Month Observance
on 24 March 2011.
Wow. It is such an honor. After the show, several soldiers and other audience members approach me, praising my performance. The education program manager of the museum who donated the costumes was amazed. “That was incredible! Do you have a video of the show? I would run it at the museum.” I don’t, I tell her, but you can bet I hope to eventually. A teenager approaches me. She looks to be about 15 and as she starts speaking her voice is hoarse and raspy and she is a bit shaky. “I am sick”, she said – so I step back. “But I am so glad I came,” she whispers. Then her mouth starts quivering. “When I grow up, I want to be the president.” She starts crying. I have affected her. I have inspired her. I do a whole thing in the show about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who, in 1872, ran for president (that no one knows about, of course). “Well, you can be the President,” I hear myself say, my voice cracking with emotion. She has affected and inspired me. “You can absolutely be the president. What is your name and how old are you?” She is 16 and I can’t remember her name. “All you need is courage and the will,” I tell her. “Please go to my website and contact me and I will send you some books.” I wanted to hug her.
I strike my set and costumes and pack everything up and and on my way out more soldiers congratulate me and tell me how much they enjoyed the show. A female soldier in fatigues catches me at the exit and tells me how much she loved the show, and then she said: “Ya know, last month was Black History Month and we were all expected to go to the event,” which she explains was given high priority, was held in the theater and apparently very well attended by all sorts of brass. “And here it is Women’s History Month and you’re performing in the Defect.” She was pissed. Yup. Well, I am not surprised. The military is not known for its appreciation of women. And I now have seen it and felt it firsthand.
I meet the sergeant outside – it is 1:00PM and we are off to the airport for my 3:00PM flight. I am filled with post-show adrenaline and very proud and honored. She is upset about the low turnout and the fact that none of the higher ups attended. But – she is having a birthday party for her four-year-old daughter and has to rush home. Duty calls.
I get to the airport, lugging and schlepping my even heavier bag as my plaque is made of stone and weighs about 15 pounds. But it is my new treasured possession. I just get through the long slow security line when some guy behind me mouths off about the screening process and they shut the whole thing down. We all have to wait while this guy gets the full treatment, a very public body search – complete with the “junk touching” that even I could feel. Whooof. Never mouth off in an airport security line. I am upset about this obviously inappropriate mis-use of power and how it unnecessarily inconvenienced so many, but I am still high from the show and I know there is a cold beer and a taco waiting for me once we are allowed through.
I am so happy and relieved and I get on the teeny tiny cigar plane, reliving the show, get to Phoenix with its two-hour layover, but I don’t care. I try to nap but am over excited so get a latte and plan on working but – as luck would have it – my 5:00PM flight is delayed. For three hours. I am quite sick of schlepping my bags and of airports and traveling in general….finally arrive back in Los Angeles at 10:30PM to a monsoon rainstorm. Exhausted but happy, I carefully drive home, pull in to my driveway at 11:30PM, see the backyard lights NOT ON as I instructed – just an open invitation to the burglars I keep telling my girls. Oy. Unload the car and hear “mom is that you”? My 18-year-old wakes up. “Yes honey, I am unloading – go back to sleep.” I place my prized plaque prominently on the dining room table. The house smells of wet dog. We have a cat. I’m concerned. Kiss my sleeping daughters, take a hot shower, cuddle my cat and go to sleep. I did it. I entertained the troops. I can’t believe it. I drift off thinking about the emotional 16-year-old who wants to be president. I would have done the whole thing just for her.