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

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

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

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

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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