“What must I do for you to see me?” Até, the Greek goddess of mischief and ruin, says in the Women in Combat Theatre Project’s new play Bullet Catchers. Diverse servicemembers may well say the same thing, after Donald Trump’s recent Twitter attempt to ban transgendered troops. But despite one character’s prescient assertion that “laws change,” the first female grunts have already joined the Army and Marine Corps. Highlighted by books such as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War and documentaries like Daria Sommers and Meg McLagan’s Lioness, many women have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bullet Catchers, set in the near future, follows a mixed-gender infantry unit that has now become plausible reality.
In the play, battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Maya De Los Santos (Jessica L. Vera) supervises a deployed unit led by new Lieutenant Anouk Eshara (Victoria Nassif). With a nod to military policy post-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” De Los Santos worries she’ll lose her authority after finally marrying her female lover of ten years. Conflict runs high among several more soldiers, as foulmouthed, experienced Staff Sergeant Pajau (Rebecca Hirota) coaches green Lieutenant Eshara and disciplines Private First Class Boudica (Emma C. Walton) for a perceived lack of motivation. Hirota delivers a strikingly athletic performance, swinging between gung-ho enthusiasm and angry volatility.
Sound designer Almeda Beynon and music director Yeujia Low pair the simplicity of pianos and drums with choreography at once balletic and martial. Pre-deployment, the soundtrack ranges from moving a cappella gospel to an energetic techno-reggae training montage. During deployment, there are the expected sounds of war; the playbill comes with a trigger warning, and lighting designer Kelley Shih leverages a stark interplay of brightness and shadow during battle scenes.
Military units train, live, and fight together, and Bullet Catchers realistically depicts the resulting interpersonal dynamics. Issues runs the gamut from phone arguments with parents back home to served-by-mail divorce paperwork to the bonding goofiness of binge-watching a TV series that soldiers might never admit to liking anywhere else. There is some expected—and awkward—sexual tension between squad members, similar to that seen among young people in other high-stress jobs. And while it’s refreshing to see very little posturing from the two male soldiers (a welcome respite from the misogyny of the Marines United nude photo scandal this past spring), one cautions the other over an illicit shot of care-package liquor, “Whatever’s said in the hooch stays in the hooch.”
De Los Santos, Eshara, and Pajau show signs of burnout, common among deployed leaders. There is also external pressure in the form of the press and politicians parroting hackneyed protests against women’s presence in primitive conditions and their purported weakness in combat jobs. Lieutenant Eshara also shows signs of repressed sexual trauma, though it does not define her character. One theme running through all of the soldiers in leadership positions is how seriously they take their mission, and the internal pressure they put upon themselves in addition to the inherent stress of Army hierarchy and media attention on an integrated unit.
According to director Julia Sears, Bullet Catchers was expressly created to address a lack of female veterans’ representation in theatre and film. It was written with significant input from servicemembers; Sears and co-creator Maggie Moore interviewed approximately 35 male and female veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps before starting to write. And three of the eight actors—all of whom are credited as co-creators — are recent veterans. Sandra Lee, in particular, delivers a versatile performance; an eight-year Army vet, she plays both the goddess Até and the civilian lesbian wife Jordan. In preparation for their roles, the entire cast traveled to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey to participate in a training simulator, climb on armored vehicles and Humvees, speak with troops, and wear the same Kevlar gear as deployed soldiers.
This powerful and engaging play raises awareness not just about women’s contributions to defending the United States, but for their tight-knit integration with male troops in well-trained units. It also highlights women’s deep desire to serve, mirroring attitudes that have been encouraged in men since before our country’s founding. Given the current political climate, Bullet Catchers is a necessary performance. Will attempts at tweeting policy continue to threaten opportunities for servicemembers not born male? In the words of character Lieutenant Colonel Maya De Los Santos, “I did not give my life to service to give up now.”
Bullet Catchers is playing at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, NYC, through August 5th.