Letters That Will Live Forever

Writer/director Randal Myler and musician Chic Street Man share the relaxed confidence of veteran performers. Myler won a Tony for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, and Spunk, Chic Street Man’s collaboration with George C. Wolfe in adapting the work of Zora Neale Hurston, is legendary in the theater world. But the new show they have written together, Touch the Names, which opens at the Ensemble Theatre this weekend, is about another kind of veteran, one that never got much chance to relax or grow confident—the Vietnam veteran. Every day, thousands of people leave objects small and large at the foot of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., including some incredible letters. This play uses those objects and the words of these often anonymous pilgrims to tell the story of that war and the men and women who lost their lives to it.

The idea for the show came to Myler on Memorial Day in 1996. He and Chic Street Man were in D.C. together for a production of It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues at the Arena Stage. They used the day off to walk down to the Mall where they discovered an event in progress. People were speaking, but most importantly, Myler saw for the first time what happens at the Wall every day, all day and all night—people were leaving things there. Intrigued, Myler asked a guard where it all went. He was told that the objects left at the Wall were gathered every day and transported to a warehouse in Maryland, where they were tagged and bagged by a team of curators.

As the creator of several shows based on collections of other people’s writing, including the very successful Love Janis, which used a cache of letters home written by the late Janis Joplin, Myler was immediately aware that this situation held some potential for him. After several weeks of lobbying the Parks Services commission that administers the Wall, Myler hit pay dirt. The woman in charge had seen his show about the blues—and she loved it. Soon he was ensconced in the warehouse, the newest member in the small team that guards and catalogues the various items that people bring to the wall.

Here’s how he describes it. “The warehouse is large, and it is staffed by just two curators, one of whom is a vet. They set up a desk for me in this giant, quiet, empty warehouse, and they started bringing me items. I had given them an idea of what I was looking for, and they of course knew exactly what they had. I was there for a week, and in that time I became one of them. They left me to sift through the things they collected, which numbered in the tens of thousands. Every day it would come in, the morning haul, like fish.”

Myler goes on to say that the experience was one of “watching the ripple effect of the war travel through the decades.” He remembers a poignant moment of insight when the team realized the meaning behind a trend of dated childhood toys that were suddenly being left—“people were retiring who had lost their sons, and they were cleaning out the kids’ rooms before moving down to Florida.”

The range of items left at the Wall is truly incredible. Everything from tiny scraps of paper with only a few words inscribed to, once, a fully chopped and custom-painted Harley-Davidson. The keys were in the ignition, dangling a set of dog tags. The morning after the night it appeared, the bike went into storage, where it has remained, unridden and unseen, but far from unappreciated, a consummate selfless gesture by a group of vets to one of their own kind in their own idiom.

As he sorted through the thousands of letters and objects presented to him, Myler selected certain special letters to send to Chic Street Man, who was living then, as he does today, in Seattle. Chic’s job was to match the tone of the material with songs that would convey its heart and soul. As Myler puts it, “We knew immediately that music would soothe the savage beast.”

Both Myler and Street Man emphasize the same point about the spirit in which they have engaged this material. Chic draws on his degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz and his years of experience as a human rights activist when he says that for him, “the piece is fundamentally about love.” In discussing the genesis of one of the evening’s songs in another tragic episode involving the fate of battered women here in the U.S., Street Man defines his attitude as one of deep caring. He says that “the essence of what comes to me as I contemplate their experience is that I want to hold these people in my arms and say that it will be all right.” Myler speaks a little differently about how he wants to handle the burden of representation in this show, but at the core he is saying the same thing. “It’s so important that the director not put some kind of spin on this. The material must speak for itself. In order to honor the Wall it can’t be spun with political sentiment, either Democratic or Republican. It’s a lesson all of us need to hear, hawks and doves.”

This production of Touch the Names is a real coup for Santa Barbara and the Ensemble Theatre Company. The Vietnam War Memorial is the most visited memorial structure in the country, and the practice of bringing tribute to it is as beautiful and darkly moving a social statement as this country has ever witnessed. That the stories within some of these lonely messages flung against the black granite of mortality are being celebrated and respected is, amid the ongoing tragedy of the Vietnam War and its legacy, cause for rejoicing.

4·1·1 The Ensemble Theatre Co. presents Randal Myler and Chic Street Man’s Touch the Names at Alhecama Theatre from Fri., Feb. 9-Sun., Mar. 5. Call 962-8606.

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