Story: Sgt. Dale “D.J.” Jackson, a black soldier from Detroit, returns home in 1968 with a Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to him for service “above and beyond the call of duty.” President Lyndon B. Johnson himself proclaims the distinction in a ceremony celebrating the soldier. Jackson receives the medal for single-handedly killing more than a dozen enemy soldiers after his unit was slaughtered, with just one survivor: Jackson.
The discharged sergeant, however, isn’t exactly right. Shipped back to The States within 48 hours of his rampage, Jackson experiences severe traumatic stress, not to mention survivor’s guilt. That sends him to a mental hospital and eventually to the Valley Forge Army Hospital, where he meets with a psychiatrist brought down from New York City to help him.
As it turns out, the doctor carries his own wartime baggage. Can the two of them unlock the soldier’s tortured psyche and help him readjust to an often hostile society that increasingly is angered by America’s presence in Vietnam?
Highlights: Playwright Tom Cole based his 1975 drama on the real-life experiences of Dwight Johnson, a black soldier who was honored for his wartime service only to experience trouble and tragedy upon his return to America. The Missouri History Museum has mounted a strong and stirring production of Medal of Honor Rag by the West End Players Guild as part of its Missouri History Museum Presents theater series in early December.
Other Info: The one-act work is performed in conjunction with one of the History Museum’s current shows, The 1968 Exhibit, a state-of-the-art, multimedia show that looks at the often contradictory experiences of that turbulent year in American history. The 1968 Exhibit continues through January 5, 2014.
Sean Ruprecht-Belt directs the West End Players Guild presentation with a sharp focus and crisp pace that bring out arresting performances by both Reginald Pierre as D.J. and Tom Kopp as the psychiatrist. Darrious Varner contributes in the minor role of a guard indifferent and even a bit hostile to Jackson’s condition.
Ken Clark’s set design utilizes a portion of the expansive stage with a utilitarian interviewing room comprised of a desk, a pair of chairs, a filing cabinet and a wastebasket with an entrance door at stage right. The room, lit by Anthony Anselmo and furnished with a modicum of props by Rebeca Davidson, is as sparse as the trust between Jackson and his interrogator.
Leonard Marshell adds sound design and costume designer Teresa Doggett dresses D.J. in robe and pajamas and the psychiatrist in a suit.
Ruprecht-Belt moves his performers around the stage to accentuate more intense moments, although one might expect increased fear from Kopp when the physically imposing Pierre erupts in a rage and threatens him with an uplifted chair. For the most part, though, Kopp is firmly and effectively in control of his character, absent-mindedly tossing sticks of gum in his mouth as he contemplates how to make a connection with his troubled patient.
Pierre offers another in an increasing number of strong portrayals. He convincingly demonstrates the sergeant’s under-appreciated intelligence as he attempts to turn the tables on the doctor by countering the psychiatrist’s questions with a series of his own queries. Much of the production’s strength emanates from the verbal cat-and-mouse game between the two, as Pierre looks for strategic weaknesses in this new version of the enemy.
Medal of Honor Rag is set in a particular time and place, but the horrors of war that are branded into the psyches of combat veterans have an applicability that extends to any conflict.
Play: Medal of Honor Rag
Company: West End Players Guild
Venue: Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum
Dates: Through December 15
Tickets: $15-$20; contact mohistory.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photo courtesy of John Lamb