The Vietnam War was the prolonged conflict that ran from 1959-1975. Engaged in a war that many viewed as unwinnable, U.S. leaders lost the American public's support for the war. Exploring the American soldier’s participation in the only war the United States has ever lost and its lasting effects is the premise of “The weight … a Vietnam Experience,” a play written by Sid Holmes and based upon 60 hours of one-on-one interviews of 10 local Vietnam veterans. Centering on the troops’ arrival in Vietnam and engagement in a combat, the play will be recall the memories of seven middle-aged men veterans who gather at the gravesite of a comrade, recounting their military service in Vietnam.
Nationally renowned poet and Pew Fellow, Lamont B. Steptoe, who dropped out of college to join the army after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., plays himself. A sergeant who served one tour as a dog handler, Steptoe walked ‘point’ during patrols, in front of his fellow troops as they searched for the enemy.
The interviews forming the basis of the play — and documentary, “The Weight” — were intense and intimate: Steptoe’s sessions lasted 10 hours over the course of three days. The majority of the veterans, some of whom are familiar to many Philadelphians — such as Senior Judge John Braxton and Crisis Intervention founder Bennie Swanns — had never been asked in-depth questions about their service.
Holmes, 52, is not a veteran, which is one of the reasons why he focused on these forgotten soldiers. “That was a major impetus for me even doing the documentary is because that war ended when I was 14,” explained Holmes.” You’re always watching the news and everything, and the war went on and on and on, and you thought, ‘Hey, am I going to end up fighting in this war?’ But what happened is that I’m of a generation, in my early 50s, where we were not touched directly by war. Only one or two folk that I graduated from high school with went into the service. I mean, you just didn’t think about it.”
A town-hall style discussion with the actors and the audience follows the reading. A test performance staged on the eve of Veterans Day 2011 proved an emotionally wrenching evening for everyone present, as veterans and their family members shared stories of grappling with often buried post-war trauma and unpredictable behavior.
“Vietnam was this country’s last innocent war and they’re still trying to comprehend and make sense of what happened to them,” Holmes says, “Even decades later, the recollections resonate with a strong and lingering impact on their psyches. They will carry this tremendous burden — a weight — with them forever.
“The discussion was a catharsis that lasted for two hours. It could have gone on for two more; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Steptoe also will share selections of his award-winning poetry. Holmes encourages anyone who knows a Vietnam veteran to attend the play to gain some insight into what they had experienced, “even if it’s just a glimpse or inkling, however slight.”
The performance of “The Weight…A Vietnam Experience” will be held at 6 p.m., Jan. 19, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 2nd and Market streets. Admission is $10; free for all veterans.