Chair force one
In Mid-November, Americans are accustomed to venerating the veterans who have put their lives at stake in trenches, fighter planes and tanks. But at Goodluck Macbeth Theatre Company in Reno, you’ll find George Brant’s Grounded, the disturbingly up-close-and-personal story of one woman who’s part of a class of military hero that few have even heard of.
This emerging class of Air Force “hero” goes unknown and unacknowledged by civilians and even treated as second-class citizens by fellow pilots. They are the “Chair Force”: the pilots who operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) that the U.S. government has an increasing appetite for. They pilot from air-conditioned trailers, using video screens that relentlessly capture ground-level carnage from which they may never turn away.
In this one-woman, one-act, 85-minute tour de force, Brant’s unnamed heroine is fictional, but she is a representative sample of the Chair Force, and of what staring at these haunting images for 12 hours a day can do to a healthy woman’s psyche.
Ashley Marie James plays the pilot, a decidedly—and proudly—unfeminine woman (“not a hair-tosser!”) who revels in kicking ass from 50,000 feet up in her F-5 Tiger fighter plane, soaring “in the blue.” From up there, she’s gone “long before the boom.” In the blue is where she prefers to be over any place on Earth.
That is, until she’s on leave and meets Eric, the first guy she’s ever met who is turned on, not intimidated, by her flight suit, by her power and prowess. For the first time, she’s sad when her leave is over.
Her fling with Eric gets serious quickly when she realizes she’s pregnant, and, by law, officially grounded. For three years, she’s desk bound as she raises a child and is the best wife she can be.
When she feels the pull of the blue again, her request to return gets her an unusual placement: She’s now a member of the Chair Force. In exchange for the blue, she can stay home, put her daughter to bed each night, and work behind a screen piloting a UAV from here in the States. She will spend 12 hours a day staring at “the gray” of the Middle-Eastern desert—performing assassination strikes on government-selected targets.
Though there may be no more physical price to pay for her country, the emotional and psychological price soon becomes too much to pay.
The fact that James’ character is unnamed gives her an everywoman quality. She could be any one of the thousand or so UAV pilots currently working for the U.S. Air Force. Her story isn’t particularly unique. But this is made all the more troubling when we understand the gravity of this fact. The sights she must witness as she destroys “military-age males on the side of the road,” along with precious, innocent members of their families, are occurring for real every day, around the world. Her story forces us to consider two important modern-day phenomena: 1) the unaccounted-for costs of technological advancement, and 2) the frightening fact that little in our world goes unwitnessed.
It’s a particularly unsettling 85 minutes, thanks to James’ impressive performance, which ranges from blissful swagger to fragile instability in unpredictable bursts, capturing the way in which PTSD can sneak up on its victims. Director Joe Atack’s production choices lend to this unsettling quality as well—a chair is placed squarely in the middle of a highway surrounded by sand, as video projections, light and a disquieting score effectively convey the pilot’s mental state.
But even when the lights go down on James’ performance, you’ll still be in that trailer with her, in her head, and, as with the pilot, the image is a hard one to shake.