“OVERPAID, OVERSEXED, OVER HERE”…AND NOT AT EASE...
In 1942 the Americans came to rural Britain: the US Eighth Air Force, its members often outnumbering local villagers 50 to 1. Many were black, often from the segregated Southern states. This fascinating starkly set four-hander by Polly Wiseman draws on records and East Anglian memories of how it was: notably (since the older generation is nearly gone) conversations with those who were local children: slipping (as children will) in and out of the bases, making friends across fences, listening to parents’ conversations, noticing big sisters’ flirtations.
So it is about wartime relationships and tensions, but also, inevitably, about racism. And about the counter-intuitive fact that the locals – white, rustic, unsophisticated – often welcomed the “coloured” GIs more than the swaggering young white airmen, to whom they were warm-beer peasants and their lowlier fellow-servicemen just “niggers”. The record is clear, though rarely exposed: last year’s book FORGOTTEN by Linda Hervieux tells of the day in Lancashire when locals fought alongside with black servicemen against the military police. Here in Suffolk, one pub was serving black GIs alongside locals when brash white Americans came in and tried to expel them. The landlord promptly threw out the white guys. George Orwell, in Tribune, actually observed that “The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.” Unfair court-martials and bullying were frequent: Eisenhower himself had to revoke the death penalty on one black GI wrongly accused of rape in 1944.
I relate all this because it would be easy to dismiss Wiseman’s play as politically correct varnish, were it not that such memory supports it. At its centre is a dignified, solid, ultimately immensely moving performance by Nathanael Campbell as Joe: a young engineer from Alabama (“I’m not a cottonpicker!”) who “didn’t join up to be a janitor in uniform” but must dig ditches and shift muck. In contrast is the strutting but increasingly nervous airman Chester (Joshua Hayes). He tries and fails to pick up Viv, a land girl (Georgia Brown). She is half-heartedly engaged to a merchant sailor; when she meets Joe, though, it’s love, touchingly expressed in her sense that his difference makes her world bigger.
Darting around is little Ginny (Grace Osborn, convincingly playing as young as 13), a too-bright farm kid prevented by her family from going to grammar-school. She sees all, and approves greatly, as she has a joshing friendship with Viv’s young Othello. But such a liaison is dynamite: in the background there are WVS stricture on “good conduct for young women”, and – this presumably is researched – a deliberate rumour that black GIs all have VD.
I was, for a while, uneasy that this might be the obvious play to write, with a pat moral. But it moves on, tipping nicely into harsh incident and fresh perception. Chester, at first clumsily patronizing about liking gospel-music and so forth, is torn between his jealous dignity and instinct towards decency; Viv, at first so brave in love, panics at the consequences: a potential “mongrel” baby and the fact that interracial marriage is illegal in Alabama and still tricky in Suffolk. Her fiancé returns from sea, Joe gets arrested for for defending himself against Chester, and the girl’s cry of “I”m not brave!” is heartbreakingly authentic.
Little Ginny, on the other hand, is far too brave, and a naive attempt to save Joe in court-martial makes things considerably worse. In the background we get Hayes and Brown doubling, he as an American anti-racism campaigner , she as the influential Lady Reading, who represents the establishment of the time and its fear that Commonwealth troops would rebel if US forces’ racism was reported. It is perhaps a cartoonish portrayal, and a small flaw in the play.
But with Campbell’s remarkable Joe now prowling the stage “unseen” in fetters, singing the spiritual “Hold on!”, the power of the piece survives it. A final flashback to the child’s first meeting with the black GI is unexpectedly affecting. Joe’s reading to home, censorship rules keeping it vague – “I dug a ditch today. Somewhere in England”.
The play tours right across the Eastern counties till June, often one-nighters in robust Eastern Angles style – but with a good run in Ipswich and site-specific performances in Debach Airfield, which could be thrilling . The cast’s strength can only grow: and Nathanael Campbell is already a name to watch.
http://www.easternangles.couk for dates and contacts. Touring to June