Students Responding To War (and Honey Brown Eyes)

Teaching has been an unqualified joy this semester and it all came together yesterday as students from the Universities of Michigan and California at Berkeley and Merced assembled at the theater to present 11 short plays written in response to Stefanie Zadravec’s play. The class has focussed on adaptation this semester and Stefanie had come to class in early October, while still in rehearsal, as she shared her strategies as a playwright, showing how her intense research on the subject of rape camps and ethnic cleansing perpetrated during the Balkan War led, first to a false start in her playwriting, and then ultimately to finding the most resonant setting for dramatizing the ravages of this war between neighbors; she set her war play in a kitchen — two of ’em, in fact — which would become the brilliant dramatic stroke that gives her intimate play such a depth of perspective.

Stefanie’s play is a fresh burst of original playwriting, but in other ways it’s an example of free adaptation as well, as she writes on top of and inspired by actual war testimony as related in a number of sources, including, principally, Good People in an Evil Time: Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War, by Svetlana Broz.

And so our 15 students teamed up to create their own freely inspired adaptations, taking on the subject of war, of internment camps, of genocide in Rwanda, the incursions into Afghanistan, Iraq, and ultimately outer space. Great kids.

Here’s the line up. And after that, we’ll post a number of their plays here. All 4 minutes in length. Really good stuff. A lot of us in the audience cried. And not a soul left in the audience during the 50 minute presentation Not one. It was riveting.

Here’s the line-up, and then a few of the plays. We’ll post more as they come in.

Theater J Artistic Director’s Round Table Series
November 23, 2008
“Adapting War Stories”
4 Minute Plays by students at the University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley and Merced Washington Internship Programs
Inspired by Stefanie Zadravec’s HONEY BROWN EYES

1. “The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic”
Written & Performed by Hong Pum Chung & William Juhn

Judge: Hong Pum Chung
Milosevic: William Juhn

2. “Comfort Women”
Written and performed by Patricia Kim

3. “From a Distance”
Written by Kristen Stevens

Zach: Ryan Leclerc
Janet: Malak Behrouzhami

4. “Only the Media Knew about Rwanda”
Written & Performed by Andrea Spacht

5. “Dear Ms. Breed”
Written & Performed by Maggie Stockel

6. “An Endless War”
Written by Hwi Park

Korean Student: Hwi Park
Japanese Student: Brett Vogel

7. “You Can’t Take Back a Bullet Once It Is Fired”
by Malak Behrouzhami

Soldier: Malak Behrouzhami
Walking Victim: Bill Leech

8. “The American Liberation of Iraq”
Written by Elizabeth Brouwer, Erin Copland & Ryan Leclerc

Leader: Ryan Leclerc
Iraqi Woman: Erin Copland
American Soldier: Elizabeth Brouwer

9. “The American Way of War”
Written & Performed by William Leech & Brett Vogel

Child: Brett Vogel
Grandfather: William Leech

10. “The Plastic Age”
Written & Performed by George Dong

11. “Earth Meets Indrid”
Written by Kenny Human

Moderator: Kenny Human
Indrid: Bill Leech & Erin Copland


Dear Ms. Breed
Written & Performed by Maggie Stockel

My scene is inspired by the everyday context of war and the ordinary characters confronted by it in Honey Brown Eyes. It is an adaptation of a few of the many letters sent by Japanese American students to Miss Breed, their hometown librarian, while they were imprisoned in internment camps during World War Two.

April 13, 1942

Dear Miss Breed,

I was overwhelmed with joy to hear from you. Sometimes I wish I were Webster or Winston so that I could write my appreciation in other words besides “thank you” for all the lovely books you sent me. Then again I am glad I am just plain Margaret Ishino.

Thank you Miss Breed, for asking questions because it has helped me a lot – for then I know this letter has something of interest to you. Now to answer them – yes we were sent to the race track. Little did I think that I would see Santa Anita, where once trod the millions of pleasure seeking fans of the sport of kings–horse-racing. Why I’m actually treading the ground where the mighty Seabiscuit won his great duels on the track.

When peace comes again to this world I should like very much to travel but then I would like to live contentedly for the rest of my days in America – my home sweet home.

Most sincerely,

Margaret Ishino

July 25, 1942

Dear Miss Breed,

We are now in a strange place–Poston, Arizona. I doubt whether this is even on the map.

The food here is about the same as the food at the county hospital with the exception of less meat. I have heard that we are to receive meat soon, but I think that it will be mostly stew because we are not allowed knives.

Yes, we do have chairs and tables. Father made them out of scraps of wood which we found here and there. They may not be of the best but they are substantial. We also have pillows which we brought from home. But we do not have mattresses. We use some of our blankets instead.

Most sincerely,

Margaret Ishino

January 4, 1943

Dear Miss Breed,

I hope I did not give you the wrong impression of Poston! This is a wonderful place–way out in the open spaces. It would be paradise if it were not for the dust, heat, and the insects. When I stop to think how the pilgrims started their life, similar to ours, it makes me feel grand for it gives me the feeling of being a pure full-blooded American.

Most sincerely,

Margaret Ishino

December 20, 1944

Dear Miss Breed,

Thanks very much for your Christmas package. I am saving it for Christmas so I can have the thrill of opening it on that day. The big news here is the lifting of the mass exclusion act for persons of Japanese Ancestry. All this rather has me all up in the air. I haven’t been able to think much about it. The suddenness and the magnitude of the problem took me by surprise.
I’m left with an empty feeling of wanting to go outside, yet without a definite place to go. It’s really tough on people my age who have just gotten out of high school without any specific training. We want to go out and work, but we haven’t had enough training or experience and feel rather unsure of ourselves. However, I guess everyone feels this way when they grow up and have to face the world. Our problems are just like anyone else except for the fact that we have to get out of camp first of all. I can amble on and on on this subject but it won’t get us anywhere so this is enough of my troubles.

I am sending you some cigarettes as we have just about nothing else this year suitable for gifts. I am sure you can find someone who could make use of them. Cigarettes are rationed here at one package per day. A Merry Christmas to you.

Most sincerely,

Margaret Ishino

* * *

By Kristen M. Stevens


This piece is adapted from an account I read about a Chicago Tribune and National Geographic reporter who went missing in Sudan while covering a story on the genocide in Darfur. The following conversation is between this reporter’s very worried wife and her state governor. Just as the characters in HONEY BROWN EYES returned to more comfortable conversations in order to cope with war around them, my piece also shows how the same occurs for those at home, those who feel the reverberations of war from a distance.

(JANET and ZACH are talking on the telephone. JANET is pacing. ZACH is sitting down in his office.)

I know there have been times when he hasn’t called for a few days, but he’s never done anything like this before. I always hear from him eventually, always. He’s thoughtful, he knows I’d worry, he knows I’d lose sleep. I can’t sleep, Zach, I can’t sleep anymore. I just can’t do it. I have to do something, I have to do something, anything. I feel helpless, helpless because I am so far away. I’m not crazy enough to think I could actually find him in that mess of refugee camps or god forbid among the dead. I’d be fooling myself if I tried, and then I’d probably just end up dead myself, dead with the thousands of others. I’m begging you, Zach, what can I do? What can I do to make it right again? I can’t lose him now; I’m too young, I’m too happy. This can’t happen to me, it just can’t

I know, I know, I’ll do all I can, Janet, all I can. Sam has always been there for me and I won’t let him slip away, not like this. But Sam needs you more than ever now, not to rescue him but to just be strong. Just remember him and keep remembering him. That’s the most you can do.

Whenever I try to think about where he is, all I can remember are those photos from the last time he went to Africa. Do you remember? Do you remember the story? The one where he followed gorillas for days and days, just to see if they really did communicate with each other? After he heard a story about how a group of scientists were able to teach some captive gorillas i to communicate through sign language, he thought for sure there had to be some wild gorillas doing it on their own. It was crazy, I know, but I just laughed at him. I laughed at him because I knew there would be time later to make up for it. I try to remember that feeling now and I can’t. I can’t imagine laughing at him again. All I can think about is how I might never see him again, ever.

You have to keep remembering, Janet. I remember another story from that trip, don’t you remember the cell phone incident? Remember when we thought he’d gone missing because he didn’t call for two days?

Yes, yes, I remember. He put his cell phone in his shoe because he thought it wouldn’t fall out there. Yes, I remember. And then he smashed it while he was trying to climb up a tree for a better shot. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how that man ever learned to use a camera. But he called me then, Zach. His phone was broken but he still called with his interpreter’s phone just so I wouldn’t worry. He wouldn’t do this to me, not call. Not on purpose. Not like this.

Have you called his office? Taylor has got to know where he is. They can’t afford the bad publicity if one of their own reporters actually goes missing.

I called Taylor yesterday and he hasn’t called me back. I left a message with his assistant and told her it was urgent, but she kept saying that Taylor would be unavailable for the next two days. I can’t imagine how the editor can be “unavailable” when the next issue comes out this Friday, but she insisted that he was not going to be able to speak with me. I almost hung up on her when she tried to transfer me to the PR department. Don’t these people understand? Don’t they understand where Sam is? He’s in a war zone for Christ’s sake!

Hang in there, Janet. They don’t understand because their husband, their son, their brother, comes home every night. Can we really blame them? No one should have to go through this Janet, no one.
…That’s my other line…this could be good news. I call you back as soon as I know something.

Thanks, Zach. I’ll be here, waiting.

* * *

“The American Liberation of Iraq”
Written by Elizabeth Brouwer, Erin Copland & Ryan Leclerc

As with Honey Brown Eyes, our play challenges the motives and outcomes of warfare. Is there really any war which succeeds in truly bringing justice, righteousness or in the case of Iraq, Liberation? This play adapts an American Leader’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech and juxtaposes it with the experiences of an Iraqi woman and an American soldier.


S – Soldier suffering from the aftereffects of the war. – Lizzy
W – Iraqi woman caught in the war – Erin
R – Leader in United States – Ryan

S: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – (Psalm 23, NIV)

R: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

S: I have been home for a while now; sometimes Iraq is just a memory… sometimes.

W: I’m afraid to give my real name. I am an Iraqi woman. My husband and I lived near Baghdad during the invasion and occupation of our country. I was a doctor, and he an engineer. We have three children.

R: In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world. Our nation and our coalition are proud of this accomplishment, yet it is you, the members of the United States military, who achieved it. Your courage, your willingness to face danger for your country and for each other made this day possible.

S: I didn’t used to be this way, but I’m kind of… I get nervous when I’m in crowds now.

W: He told me they just needed to verify something and that it would only take five minutes. I was not charged with any crime, nor given a reason for my capture. I cannot tell you any more, I live in fear for my family and my husband. God bless him.

R: Because of you our nation is more secure. Because of you the tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free.

S: In the first few weeks when I got back from my tour, my husband and I decided to go to the park and we had to leave because I couldn’t handle it. It was too busy and there were too many people, and I just didn’t like it. You’re constantly on the watch for threats. Constantly.

W: I slept on the ground. It was very dirty, very hot and had a horrible stench. I was nauseated most of the time

R: Any person involved in committing or planning terrorist attacks against the American people becomes an enemy of this country and a target of American justice.

S: I couldn’t handle it…

W: They asked me so many questions. Am I Sunni or Shiite? Am I a Ba’athist? What is my name? They accused me of aiding the high-ranking Ba’athists.

R: Any person, organization or government that supports, protects or harbors terrorists is complicit in the murder of the innocent and equally guilty of terrorist crimes. Any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction is a grave danger to the civilized world and will be confronted.

W: I was put in a wooden cage and beaten. We were never allowed to sleep through the night. Every day, morning and evening, I saw people tortured and humiliated in the corridor in front of my cell. I’m not a Ba’athist! I told them I had papers in my purse that proved that I am not in the party and that Saddam killed one of my relatives, but they didn’t care. I was just the enemy.

R: All of you, all in this generation of our military, have taken up the highest calling of history: You were defending your country and protecting the innocent from harm.

S: Sometimes I just sit in front of the television, and I just stare. My husband will call my name, but I don’t know. I am somewhere else… I am somewhere else completely.

R: With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians.

S: I just want to…

W: … need to forget the whole thing. I need to move on with my life.

R: America and our coalition will finish what we have begun.

Soldier: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – (Psalm 23)

* * *
“Only the Media Knew about Rwanda”
Written & Performed by Andrea Spacht

[note: Alas, I don’t have Andrea’s wonderfully written introduction to post here. May get it soon.]

Scene: Woman in dressing gown in a chic hotel room, perhaps sitting at vanity table or reading through mail at a desk. She is a young professional with a tall straight posture. She dials or is already on the phone as scene opens.

Hi Alex. Yeah, I got in from Rwanda last week. Barely got out of there alive: militiamen set up roadblocks wherever the hell they pleased. Men with AK-47s and a high that might last a couple days. It’s just chaos. (short pause while thinking to self) I’ve still got the images of their faces on my mind.

Anyway, why haven’t you been publishing more of my stuff; what happened to the article I sent you last week? Did you get my wire last night? (brief pause) Uh-huh, what edits have you got for me? (longer pause) You can’t strike the word ‘genocide’! BBC’s using it now.

(sigh)What do I care about the political consequences of calling it a genocide. The UN doesn’t read The Gazette. Besides, isn’t the point of journalism to get someone to do something about what’s going on out there? These people hardly have a voice in the UN. We’re their only voice anywhere! Why am I out there risking my life if I can’t save some of their lives? (pointed) There’s nothing wrong with the word “genocide”. It is entirely accurate and you can’t strike it from the article.

(as though interrupting someone. digs on desk for something to write on)

Fine. I’ll find a quotable source. Someone at Human Rights Watch or something. I’m sure they could use the placement. (more to self while scribbling ferociously) They’ve gotta have a report out on this. (longer pause) What do you mean: my story is overwhelmed by “emotional factors”? Of course it’s being overwhelmed with emotional factors. I’m being overwhelmed by emotional factors. I haven’t slept a full night in months without reliving it in nightmares Look, this is not a civil war, like the Union and Confederates. This is not a shooting war from trenches over politics.

(gulp) On our way to the airport, I looked out of the car window to see one Rwandan man attacking another Rwandan man (beat) in the head (beat) with a screwdriver (double beat) There was fierce hatred in his old wrinkled face. He was intent on killing the man. As we drove on, we passed dozens of bodies lined up outside of houses that had been hacked to death with machetes.

(louder) This should be a front page story! Not buried somewhere deep on page eight while OJ Simpson gets the highlight. This is NEWS! Bosnia is even getting more exposure than Rwanda is; you’ve even got a cameraman over there, what kind of support have I got? It’s genocide here too and you won’t even let me use the word! People need to hear this. You didn’t see them pull those people out of hospital beds. People who barely managed to survive a first round of torture by machetes. Sick men, in the hospital. They dragged them out into the courtyard, pushed and pulled them toward the pile of corpses they had already flung together. They killed them with bayonets. More than an hour.

(almost yelling) They were still dying more than an hour later! Laying in that pile of dead bodies until they themselves bled to death. (gets up and paces. hand on head then hip. now, almost a whisper) I can’t get that sickening stench . of decaying bodies . out of my nose. It’s in my hair; or in my clothes; it’s on me somewhere. I’ve washed and washed and I can’t get the smell off of me. (recovering her posture) I saw the purest evil, the worst parts of humanity. I need to tell you what I saw. I need to explain what happened – to anyone who will listen. But I cannot make you listen.

Why does everyone refuse to hear the stories from Rwanda?


One thought on “Students Responding To War (and Honey Brown Eyes)

  1. Ari, Here is my introduction:
    I remember the summer of 1994. I was a little kid. And on summer vacation from school all I wanted to do was watch cartoons on TV. Like Zlata, I loved the Cosby Show. But the only thing on television all summer was the OJ Simpson trial. I didn’t watch much news back then, but I didn’t know anything about the wars in Bosnia or Rwanda. Most Americans didn’t. If you wanted news about either war, you would have had to search pretty hard to find it.

    This piece is based on interviews, letters, and narratives from journalists who returned to the US and Europe after being on the ground reporting on the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide and how what they saw affected them and their work.

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