Late in Saturday night’s performance of Basetrack Live the actor Tyler LaMarr, as the traumatized veteran A.J. Czubai, told the audience at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center something that went to the heart of the power and discomforting revelations of this show.
“Infantry have a pride and arrogance most Americans don’t understand and don’t like,” he says. “We do a job that other people won’t. I will be the first to die. Most Americans don’t respect that.”
They are not just willing to die, but willing — sometimes eager — to kill. Basetrack Live didn’t flinch from those realities, or from the consequences to those who endure them.
Presented by MDC Live Arts, the performance was the centerpiece of a wider slate of programs aimed at South Florida veterans. The theater was not full, but a number of veterans were in the audience. In a post-show discussion, several said how moved and grateful the show left them. “Sometimes it’s very hard for us to explain to our families what we went through,” said one veteran, who seemed close to tears. “Thank you for that.”
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The show was inspired by a website created by photojournalists embedded in a Marine unit in Afghanistan, mixing their work with the Marines’ photos and stories. A stream of those images and video, as well as other video interviews with other Marines and their wives, played through Basetrack Live, accompanied by four excellent on-stage musicians on cello, percussion, violin and piano/turntables, with LaMarr and Ashley Bloom, as A.J.’s wife Melissa, telling the couple’s story. The production, which William David Fastenow, Caleb Wertenbaker, Paul Hudson and David Hamlin all had a hand in designing, looks like a website — images flickering over a sand-colored backdrop. Early on, we see Bloom talking into a laptop in the back, while her face is projected overhead, as if on Skype.
The richly atmospheric music, by Edward Bilous and Michelle DiBucci, is like a soundtrack and adds to the show’s cinematic quality, but one that’s different from the Hollywood films or news footage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s a raw, mundane, you-are-there quality to the visuals: the washed-out dun of the bleak landscape; the piles of trash; the jumpy video of bulked-up Marines trotting across the sandy hills; the flat, tensely knowing expressions in their stubbled faces during brief interviews.
“When I was in Afghanistan I wanted to go home, and when I got home there was this empty feeling,” says one. “I wanted to go back to Afghanistan.”
A.J. and Melissa’s story is the spine of the show. LaMarr, a former Marine sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, had an open-faced directness, a physical vitality, and tremendous integrity. As A.J.’s wife, Bloom captured Melissa’s fraught emotional journey. Both come across as admirably open and direct about their lives. As A.J., LaMarr tells a prototypical story: dropping out of high school and falling apart, joining the Marines, getting married just before he deploys. “It’s nice to have someone missing you,” he says, but admits, “Marines love their wives, but they love the Marines even more.”
A theme of the show is being out of control. Marines talk of the terror of IED’s, the bombs that could take their lives anywhere, anytime. A.J. and others admit to growing distrust and even hatred of civilians who could be helping their enemies, as DJ Kenneth Rodriguez raps furiously “Doncha make a ... sound.” One segment parallels Melissa, in premature labor, with A.J. on the phone urging her to push harder — only to have their daughter taken off to intensive care; and A.J. going into a battle, getting wounded and being forced to go home. Hard as they fight, neither can control their overwhelming circumstances.
For A.J., the consequences are toxic rage and guilt that he couldn’t keep going. But the show also captures Melissa’s frustration, fear and incomprehension at a husband who bonds with his rifle more than his daughter — feelings also expressed in interviews with other Marine wives. “They’re taught to kill,” says one. “They come home and that kill switch is still on. How do you turn that off?”
A.J. turns it off, finally, by turning himself into a hospital for treatment, confronting his experiences until, to his amazement, they stop overwhelming him. He can’t change his past, but he can take control of his present. The final image in Basetrack is of A.J.’s new profile picture on his Facebook page. It’s a vividly colored snapshot of him smiling, his young daughter grinning happily on his back, and it’s the first color picture we’ve seen all night. He’s back from the land of life or death to the bright land of the living, and we know that at least he is going to be all right.
Yet, as the post-show discussion highlighted, such resolutions are hard to come by. One veteran in the audience asked LaMarr if he hated civilians while in Iraq, and the actor admitted that constant uncertainty over who was helping their enemies left him confused and angry. “It’s like you’re trying to catch smoke with your bare hands, and it’s trying to kill you,” he said.
Brooke King, an Iraq veteran and writing teacher working in the veterans writing lab that is part of MDC’s broader slate of programs, was even more blunt.
“I found myself hating every person in front of me, because I didn’t know if they were gonna try to kill me,” she said. “You try to be a good person, but you can’t. All you can be is a soldier, and soldiers kill.”
King, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, said she worked with veterans in her writing classes to confront that experience.
“I try to help people understand that even though you did horrible things, you’re not a horrible person,” she said. She was describing a terrible paradox that Basetrack Live also helped its audience to understand.