Playwright Jeanmarie Simpson returns to Reno with new performance piece about women in the military
“Jesus, ladies, get it together! Learn yer leff-right-leff! Fall in! So, you miss your mommies? Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t cry, come on, ladies, get it TOGETHER! Suck it up!”
From Coming in Hot by Jeanmarie Simpson
On stage, a single woman in olive drab and dog tags performs the monologues of 14 U.S. military women telling their stories in their words. It’s not unlike The Vagina Monologues. Only these are stories of military training. Women in combat. Rape. Survival.
“I’m surrounded by people, any one of whom could set off an ambush. Any second could bring the whistle of incoming, the crack of rifle fire. I want someone to shoot!”
The play’s title, Coming in Hot, is derived from military lingo for arriving with guns blazing. The live performance, accompanied by an original soundtrack and augmented by photos displayed on a large screen, lasts 70 minutes. Then comes a post-performance conversation often between diverse parties. Iraqi veterans. Parents of soldiers. Anti-war peaceniks.
“The military is terrible. It takes young people who are vulnerable, yet full of life and potential, and systematically ruins them. It’s degrading on all levels. For me, it was a wake-up call.”
Dialogue is the goal of the play. Coming in Hot is derived from the 2008 anthology Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq. The book was adapted for theater, with the help of its editors and publisher, by playwright and founder of the Nevada Shakespeare Company Jeanmarie Simpson. She’ll be performing in Reno on Oct. 29.
“I’m very interested as a peace activist in finding new ways of exploring communication with those with whom I disagree, finding ways to bridge gaps,” Simpson says. “My whole adult life I’ve been involved in peace activism. I spent so much time preaching to the choir, being engaged with the choir—and we all agree.”
Not so with Coming in Hot. After a performance of the play in Tucson, a woman approached Simpson. “I came to this play expecting propaganda,” U.S. veteran Jamie Jansen told Simpson, “but instead found truth.”
Jansen often accompanies Simpson to high schools where the play’s being performed to answer students’ questions about military service. (She won’t be at the Reno show.) Simpson wears Jansen’s dog tags during productions.
“I don’t speak much about my experiences,” Jansen said in a post to the play’s website. “They are tucked away in a box, and every attempt is made to keep them there. This play gave a voice to all of the experiences and feelings in that box. It is a true gift.”
A singular experience
Renoites know Simpson as an artist-in-residence with Sierra Arts and the Nevada Arts Council. She wrote and performed in A Single Woman, the theatrical biography of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress before women across the nation had the right to vote.
Simpson conceived that play while living in Reno and did her first readings in the living room of John Auer, activist and former minister at First United Methodist Church of Reno. Simpson performed the play across the nation, doing an off-Broadway run in New York City. In 2006, she moved to Los Angeles while the play was turned into a feature-length film.
Simpson, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., was also a longtime Reno peace activist.
After the U.S. military went into Afghanistan in 2001, she joined groups like Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace, which held weekly vigils at Reno’s federal courthouse.
When death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan reached 800, Reno activists joined on a Memorial Day to read the names of each serviceman killed. They began early in the day, reading names and planting 800 flags on the lawn. Then they took the flags down, one by one, again reading names.
“It took hours and hours,” Simpson says. “We didn’t go that slow, but it seemed to take forever. … We started early and when we finished, the sun was going down. That was when there were 800 [killed]. Imagine doing that now.”
For Simpson, these actions were especially poignant. The year before the World Trade Center attacks, her son had graduated from Reed High School and joined the military.
“That was really weird,” Simpson says. “It’s very hard on my identity as a mother and peace activist to have a son [now] in his second deployment. … He’s virulently anti-war. At the same time, he’s part of the military machine. Weapon-trained.”
Having a son in the military added depth to Simpson’s peace activism.
“People in that community sometimes have a narrow view of what a military person is like,” she says. “But I knew, because I know my son, that the ‘scary’ type doesn’t always apply.”
Simpson turned, as she has all her life, to theater as a means for self-exploration and community conversations.
“I use theater as a tool for my own soul archaeology,” Simpson says.
The powder and the glory
The idea for the Powder anthology came at a writers’ conference after a male Iraq veteran read an essay about grappling with a soldier’s life.
“It was compelling and moving and heartwrenching,” says Lisa Bowden, publisher and founder of Kore Press, the Tucson-based publisher of Powder. But where were the stories of women who’d served? Bowden and Powder co-editor Shannon Cain began soliciting manuscripts. The two women—feminists and peace activists—expected to receive mountains of anti-war writings.
“We thought naively that any woman who goes to war would come back anti-war and pro-peace,” Bowden says. “The work we got in did not support our original premise. It was immediately humbling.”
Instead of compiling peace propaganda, the editors collected poems and essays that complicated cut-and-dry conversations about war and women.
“The job became acting as a repository for these stories that have never been told,” Bowden says. “We used a very light editorial touch, only suggesting changes to make the writing the best that it could be.”
They did not censor material.
“We published everything that was publishable,” Bowden says.
When Simpson learned of the book, she recognized the potential for a powerful theater project.
Bowden calls Simpson “a tremendous force to work with.”
“Jeanmarie has the energy, the creative capacity and the intelligence of the world,” Bowden says. “She carries that forward in everything she does.”
Moment of dread
Simpson credits Bowden, producer and director of the play, with keeping Coming in Hot true to its sources. One essay, about a photo album of dead Iraqis that a female veteran kept as a souvenir, bothered Simpson. She wanted to cut the piece. Bowden hoped to keep it.
“She said, ‘Let’s give it a look again,’” Simpson recalls. “It took months and months. She coaxed it along, birthed it in a nurturing way.”
With this encouragement, Simpson unearthed the writer’s possible motives.
“She’s looking for grace, looking for redemption, hoping against hope that the audience will forgive her, go with her and grieve,” Simpson says. “She’s telling us about the dead Iraqis’ burnt, blown-apart bodies. It’s brave of her to admit that she was exhilarated, thinking these people were trying to kill us.”
As she performs this monologue, Simpson sees the audience darken. The essayist feels judged. She tries to justify herself.
Simpson dreads this moment.
“It’s the kind of piece that I’m always glad when it’s over,” she says. “It’s like walking through fire.”
“I have kept the album for all these years. I cannot bring myself to destroy it. I’m still haunted …”