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Audio Theater of War

Review by Brendan McCall
In Their Footsteps
Written by Ashley Adelman
Directed by Ashley Adelman & Andrew Dunn
Documentary Theatre / Radio Play
Infinite Variety Productions
Broadcast on WLIW-FM on 28 March 2021

Our stories about the US-Vietnam War is vast and culturally familiar: from big budget films (Platoon, Casualties of War, Apocalypse Now) to novels (Going After Cacciato) and plays (Streamers). They also tend to be decidedly male-dominated. In fact, in many cases, women are completely absent from their fictional universes.

Ashley Adelman´s In Their Footsteps, broadcast on WLIW-FM and produced by her company Infinite Variety Productions, offers a refreshing addition to our understanding about that chaotic conflict. Originally presented live in 2016 as a documentary theatre piece–ie oral histories with five American women who served in Vietnam form the basis of the script–the work was turned into a radio play as a scheduled two-week international tour to Italy was cancelled. The release of In Their Footsteps remains especially timely: during the same week, WNYC´s On The Media released a fascinating segment about the pioneering women who covered the War as print and photo journalists. Like the women whose stories comprise Adelman´s work, their contributions and accomplishments have been largely invisible.

In Their Footsteps begins by introducing its real-life characters like a canon perpetuus, whose melody is surreal and contradictory. Ann Kelsey (Kate Szekely) is a devoted librarian who encounters a soldier playing Mozart on a piano; while the Red Cross sends Jeanne “Sam” Christie (Niki Hatzidis) to the front to serve as a “Donut Dollie”–a way to keep up the (male) soldiers´ morale through conversation and activities. They remark how hard it is finding any tampons on base because the men claim these are effective tools to keep their gun barrels´ clean. Based on the play´s oral histories, it seems that the US military not only brought its weapons to Southeast Asia, but its misogynistic attitudes towards women, as well.

About fifteen minutes in, …Footsteps brings the listener right up to some of the horrors of the War, particularly through Doris “Lucki” Allen (Chrystal Bethell), a tragically Cassandra-like figure serving in intelligence for the Women’s Army Corps whose warnings about what would later be known as the Tet Offensive fell on deaf ears from her male counterparts. Was she ignored because she was Black, or because she was a woman? Or both? Meanwhile, Lily Adams (Criena House) questions what she and the rest of her country’s military is doing, exactly, in Vietnam; as an army nurse, Lily sees the homelessness and despair inflicted upon adults and very young children by the seemingly senseless American intervention. Returning home from their service, each of these women remain haunted and affected.

All of the actors in Adelman´s piece speak with clarity and heart. Andrew Dunn, who co-directed the piece as well as served as sound editor, includes just the right mix of sound effects to create a deeper soundscape of verisimilitude.

Towards the end of the piece, when Lucki and Lily visit the Memorial in DC, we learn that over 2000 American women served in Vietnam, yet there is no official acknowledgement of them anywhere. 67 American women died in the War, and yet only 8 of their names are on the Wall. In The Footsteps is an important and powerful beginning towards remedying this, by sharing some of the heroism and humanity of these relatable women during a time of exceptional and insane violence.

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