Viet Nam Generation
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When I first sought out Jamal Joseph a few months ago at our editor Dan Duffy's suggestion, all I knew about him was that he was a former Black Panther and federal convict who had written a play, Beyond the Call of Duty, about the reunion of a Special Services LRRP squad. You must admit that on the curiosity-piquing meter, those particular qualifications score just about a perfect ten. It occurred to me that one might even build a talkshow panel around it-- "Panthers turned Poets, Today on Donahue." The ease with which one might exploit Mr. Joseph's unique personal history made me cautious about contacting him. Would I unintentionally become a victim to the cult of personality, turning Joseph into a tabloid curiosity? Would I be able to keep the focus of our conversation on this play and not his "colorful" past?
And then Jamal Joseph sent me a copy of his artistic vita--a vita which begins: "Jamal is a writer, director and performer who credits his time spent in the Black Panther Party and Leavenworth Federal Prison as the inspirational fire that forged his creative sword."
So much for my concerns. And so much for any stereotypical images of Black Panthers and federal convicts which I might have carried.
Jamal Joseph was twelve years old when he joined the NAACP, fifteen when he entered the ranks of the Black Panther Party. A gifted organizer and articulate speaker, he ascended rapidly to the upper organizational levels of the Panthers. When Joseph talks about the Panthers, he stresses not so much their politics as the needs of the community which gave rise to those politics: the Black Panther party, as he remembers and describes it, includes not only direct confrontation with the police and government, but also free breakfast programs, health clinics, legal services, and community education. Watching Joseph at work today--he is Director of Student Activities at Tuoro Community College in Harlem--little seems to have changed since the days when he helped run the Panthers' Free Breakfast Program. His focus is still very clearly on the Black community of the inner city; and, as it must have been in his Panther days, Joseph's work environment is a beehive of activity. His office is small and crammed with desks, tables, phones, and printed material. I count at least three other staff members who share the office, or who are in the office when I arrive. Students are everywhere; the few chairs in the office are piled high with their books and jackets, while the students perch on the edges of tables, crowd around desks, or try to answer the phones without cutting off callers. If not for the new wave coifs and clothes, the computer terminal in the corner, and the fact that the printed matter has to do with drug abuse and safe sex rather than "the Revolution," the scene might be mistaken for an office in Panther headquarters, 1968.
Joseph is in his element in this bustle. He is very much the organizer, the leader, the educator on intimate terms with the community he serves. And it is precisely that understanding of and desire to address the needs of the black community which struck me when I first read Beyond the Call of Duty. There is a certain continuity between what appear to be disparate elements of Joseph's life. The teen-age Panther, the federal convict who started a multi-racial theater company in Leavenworth prison, the poet and playwright (he also does stand-up comedy), and the educator: these all appear to be different incarnations of Joseph's natural inclination to focus his energies on people in need of guidance and advocacy. The role of playwright falls naturally within this spectrum of activity for Joseph because Beyond the Call of Duty was generated out of the needs of Viet Nam veterans to have their war and post-war experiences validated both to their prison community and to the community of their families and peers.
Last spring at the Popular Culture Conference, I proposed that personal trauma narratives either written by or performed by Viet Nam veterans should not be analyzed in terms of traditional literary or dramatic values, but ought, in many instances, to be addressed as ritualized rites of personal validation and re-entry into society. The primary social/therapeutic function of those rites is to bear witness to the traumas endured by many Viet Nam veterans and to create a sense of communal embrace, first within the ranks of the creative collaborators themselves, and then in ever widening circles of their targeted audience and their community. Beyond the Call of Duty seems to me to serve just such a function.
Beyond the Call of Duty was inspired by conversations Joseph had with fellow prisoners while organizing a theatrical troupe in Leavenworth Federal Prison. This troupe was exceptional in two ways, both having to do with the demographics of its members. First, in a federal prison where "voluntary segregation" is the unspoken rule, the troupe was racially integrated. According to Joseph, fellow prisoners were so dumb-founded by the unlikely racial mixture of inmates in the troupe that they began to believe the troupe was a front for a jail break. As the playwright relates the story to me, he shifts into what sounds like part of his stand-up routine.
The guys in the yard would say, well, what are these guys talking about. Two of them are black, one is white, one is Latino. It must be a jail break. We had people show up for rehearsal, become part of the group saying [he breaks into a Bronx accent] "I know this is a jail break. So, I know you guys are going to cut me in soon." And then we'd get three months down the line and the guy would suddenly say, "You guys are serious? You guys are really just doing a play?" 
The second noteworthy feature of this troupe was that, of the roughly one dozen members, over half were Viet Nam veterans. Joseph estimates that while he was in Leavenworth as many as 40% of his fellow prisoners were Viet Nam veterans. In the 1970s, Leavenworth regularly "inherited" federal prisoners from Fort Leavenworth, a nearby military stockade. Some of the prisoners were veterans who had been convicted of federal crimes while in the military, had completed their military service while still in prison, and who now had to serve the remainder of their criminal sentence in a civilian federal prison.
As an imprisoned Black Panther, Joseph found the presence of so many veterans both unnerving and confusing.
I said, look, I know why I'm here. I was talking about overthrowing the government, I called Nixon "the Pig," so naturally I'm here doing hard time. But you guys fought for America. You guys should be heroes. What are you doing here? "And then," he quickly adds, "they started telling me their stories."
Joseph recognized that the war time experiences of these veterans--and the personal distress they suffered as the result of those experiences--were similar to his own experiences as a black militant. Joseph's own life story after all, reads like that of many Viet Nam veterans: he joined a para-military organization at a very young age, determined to serve what he saw as the cause of his people. He saw combat (on America's streets), found himself at the center of a war of race in which the motives of military and government leaders were called into question, and ended up serving time. The particulars may be radically different, but the basic story is much the same as that of the Viet Nam vets Joseph met in prison. In fact, it was a Viet Nam veteran who first suggested to Joseph that perhaps he too suffered from PTSD. Joseph's own description of his condition is less technical, but nevertheless captures the essence of post-traumatic stress: "my soul wasn't settled properly in my body any more."
Beyond the Call of Duty is about the unexpected reunion, several years after the end of the Viet Nam war, of the five surviving members of a LRRP team. One of the men, a black nationalist named Askari, is on the run from federal authorities. He appears at a Southside Chicago jazz club owned by "LV," another former member of the team. (Yes, this is, in fact, another Vet at the Door drama.) Zoom, a functional heroin addict who works at the club, is also a member of the team. He sends word to former team members Subway (a Latino cop) and Poison (a white lawyer) that a buddy is in trouble, and thus the five are reunited.
What might be seen as a contrived pretense for a post- war reunion was actually spawned by a question Joseph put to the Viet Nam veterans in his acting group at Leavenworth: What would you do if, in the future, you ran into somebody with whom you had been in the bush, and that person asked you to break the law, or risk your life, or to throw away your life, to help him? The overwhelming response, says Joseph, was "I'd have to go down with my brother." The question was not a matter of idle curiosity for Joseph since he himself was arrested and imprisoned (for the second time) in 1981 for helping to hide the key suspect in an armored car robbery.
Joseph's description of the workshop-style writing and rehearsal process of Beyond the Call of Duty is much like the group sessions and drama therapy undertaken in PTSD wards like that run by David Read Johnson at the VA Medical Center in West Haven, Connecticut.  Members of such groups are encouraged to share experiences, to identify and bond through a sense of a common goal and common experiences, to objectify those experiences by turning them into art, and to validate and bear witness to those experiences by performing that art before a gathering of their peers.
This type of non-traditional social and therapeutic function places unusual dramaturgical demands on the work of art and on the artist. In Beyond the Call of Duty, those demands are most evident in the manner in which Joseph constructs his characters. The characters are, by conventional standards of psychological realism, rather improbable--especially the criminal characters: the "admirable" junkie who is a prolific writer and reliable friend; the escaped convict who is so opposed to substance abuse that he won't take a drink to numb the pain of a bullet wound. And yet, the seeming contradictions within these characters draw attention to the play's potential social/therapeutic function. As part of a social ritual of reintegration, the requirements of good therapy are more pressing than--and are simply different from--the requirements of conventional realism and of "good" commercial drama.
The characterizations are structured in such a way as to reveal and validate the experience of marginalized veterans. This means giving the characters a hidden humanity and an unforeseen potential for noble action, especially in light of their nearly obsessive devotion to each other, a devotion which starkly contrasts with their outward appearance and circumstances. Joseph has said that he wants to clearly separate the worth of the individual from what has happened to that individual. "It comes down to what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary situations." What separates us from the junkie or the convict, this play suggests, is not our superiority, but the events and circumstances which have shaped our lives. This affirmation of the individual may make for improbable dramatic characterizations, but those characters can only be judged in terms of the intended function of the play in performance. Certainly, it was much more important to the inmates of Leavenworth that these characters represent and validate their humanity than that they pass someone's test of psychological verisimilitude.
In December of 1987, Joseph was released from prison. He returned to Harlem where, in March of 1989 and again in October of 1990, the Black National Theater staged productions of Beyond the Call of Duty. The changes Joseph made in the script between the Leavenworth production and the Black National Theater productions reflect the playwright's sense of a new mission for the play in light of the vastly different audience his work would face in Harlem. In the National Black Theater version of the play, the reunion of the special services team is juxtaposed to another reunion: the relatively recent reconciliation of LV with his wife, Kay, and with his two daughters (who do not appear in the play). LV has also recently entered a joint business venture with his uncle, Papa Jim. The addition of a wife and family suggests the shift from the need to address an all-male, prison audience containing many veterans, to an audience comprised of mostly non-veterans, or veterans accompanied by their families or their community support circle. The addition of this parallel narrative broadens the parameters of the community being addressed in the play and expands upon the overall narrative focus to include the difficult readjustment many Viet Nam veterans faced in returning to the United States.
Kay's role is essential to the functioning of the play in these new surroundings; she is the primary spokesperson for the demands of family and community. It is also Kay who must educate herself (as must the audience and the community) as to the intensity of what her husband has experienced and to the equal intensity of his tie to his comrades. This process of personal education is facilitated by Kay's discovery of the journal of one of the veterans. As Kay reads the journal, its contents are dramatized on stage for the audience. The flashbacks serve both as dramatic exposition and as the bearing of witness, offering emotional insight into the lives of traumatized Viet Nam veterans. Dramatization of the journal entries is one of many significant similarities between this play and other theatrical trauma narratives written and/or performed by Viet Nam veterans. For instance, a dramatic device similar to the journal entries is used in A Vietnam Vet's Family Album where a veteran shows us his photo album and the "snapshots" come to life.  In both instances, the audience is introduced to a present-day veteran who guides us through a series of flashbacks, eventually catching up with the present day. We begin with a veteran we know only superficially, or who we think we know, and then we are given access to selective information from the past (perhaps in the form of a traumatic experience) which helps us appreciate how that veteran came to be who and where he is. In the case of Beyond the Call of Duty, this is a particularly poignant revelation since the author of the journal is a junkie (Zoom) whose bond with the reader's husband (LV), the reader (Kay) cannot understand.
It is extremely unusual to see a female character like Kay undertake a personal journey or propel the action of a play about Viet Nam veterans. In Leavenworth, Kay was not necessary to the therapeutic function of the play, nor, of course, was her presence practical given the all-male community. But in Harlem, Kay becomes an essential empathetic connection and perceptual guide for the community of predominantly non-veteran audience members. Her journey of discovery functions as a prototype for a passage which Joseph sees as essential for the family and for the inner city community if estranged veterans are to be accepted back into their embrace.
Another significant similarity between Joseph's play and veteran-generated performances is the presence of a song as part of the conclusion. Tracers, A Vietnam Vet's Family Album, and Honeybucket,  to mention a few, end in song. A song shared by the members of the cast seems to serve in these instances both as a formal and celebratory closure to the dramatic narrative and as a personal offering to the audience. In song, the members of the cast break the imaginary fourth wall of the stage, shake off their characterizations, and offer themselves and their song to the audience in a gesture which both asks for and gives a kind of communal embrace.
Jamal Joseph is what Kali Tal might call a "Cultural Therapist," that is, one who deals in the power of art to heal the individual and the culture.  He is also, by virtue of both his art and his work within the black community, a "Cultural Educator." In his own words, "artists from the Afrikan Diaspora have a duty to educate as well as entertain."  Beyond the Call of Duty should be seen as an attempt on the part of the artist to fulfill these functions within a selective community: first, within a prison community of mostly peers, and then within an ever-widening cultural community. The play demonstrates a deep empathy for Viet Nam veterans who find themselves disassociated from their community; out of that empathy has grown the potential to heal and to educate.