August 30, 2001
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
When Marc Wolf set out to interview gay and lesbian military personnel for his Obie-winning play, "Another American: Asking & Telling," in 1996, secrecy was crucial.
Three years into President Clinton's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, paranoia among gays in the military was high. So Wolf headed off to interviews without telling anyone of his destination. He traveled in his parents' car and paid for hotel bills in cash. "I had to be careful not to leave a trail of where I'd been," recalls the thoughtful, soft-spoken Jewish playwright and performer. "At times, I even thought my phone was being tapped."
"Another American," now at the Mark Taper Forum, is transcribed verbatim from about 200 interviews Wolf conducted with servicemen, politicians, academics and other observers. His 18 characters include the mother of a murdered gay GI; the sociologist who coined the phrase, "don't ask, don't tell"; a Vietnam recruit, nicknamed "Mary Alice," who liked to spruce up his unit's tent; and Sgt. Miriam Ben Shalom, the first openly gay Army official to be reinstated by court order.
"One lady called me the anti-Christ, which is hilarious because I'm a Jew," Ben Shalom sardonically recounts at one point in the play.
Wolf's haunting monologue is the latest example of a new trend in the theater -- the documentary-style play -- pioneered by Anna Deavere Smith in the L.A. riot saga "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and now on display in Eve Ensler's mega-hit "The Vagina Monologues" and Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project."
Wolf's play began in the mid-1990s, when he chanced to sit beside a lovely young woman painting her nails on the stoop of a funky SoHo theater. The theater technician shattered his expectations by revealing she was a lesbian and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. Her opinion of "don't ask, don't tell" surprised him : "She said if all gay people in the military would just ... stand up and say who they were, the sheer numbers would force the military to back down," Wolf recalls. "I suddenly realized that an entire class of people had been silenced."
The actor, who is gay, promptly remembered his role in a play about another era in which people had been silenced -- with tragic results. About nine years ago, he'd starred in a regional theater production of "The Pariah," about activists who decried the Holocaust at a time when American Jewish leaders worried that this would rouse U.S. anti-Semitism. "I never, ever compare anything to the Holocaust, but history teaches us that if you silence people, you create an atmosphere where they can be discriminated against, abused and possibly destroyed," he told The Journal.
Soon thereafter, Wolf began writing "Another American" to give voice to gays muzzled by "don't ask, don't tell."
The 39-year-old actor has been concerned about social injustice since he was one of only a few white kids bused to a predominantly African American school near his hometown of Englewood, N.J.
He's still haunted by the gruesome documentary about lynchings he saw one day in the fifth grade. After the screening, several black classmates asked Wolf if he would have been their friend if they'd lived in one of the towns depicted in the film. "I replied that of course I would," the actor recalls. "I was shocked when they said, 'We wouldn't have been your friend.'"
After studying political science and theater at Williams College, Wolf put his social concerns on hold to perform off-Broadway and on TV (his most prominent role: a very un-p.c. cross-dresser on the CBS soap opera "Guiding Light").
He'd never written a play before when he began researching "Another American" -- nor had he ever conducted an interview. "I didn't know what questions to ask or even what kind of tape recorder to use," he says.
But Wolf was so driven that he spent tens of thousands of his own dollars on the project and ran up his credit cards. He persevered even when dozens of interviewees refused to allow him to turn on his tape recorder. "I was beyond obsessed," he says.
His sense of urgency was spurred by the murder of yet another gay serviceman, Pfc. Barry Winchell, in the late 1990s.
"He was beaten to death in his sleep -- in his bed," Wolf says, shaking his head. "And I thought, 'The sooner I can get this play out, the sooner I can perhaps save a life.'"
"Another American" runs through Sept. 15. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772.