Anti-war play ‘Many May Not Return’ revived in Chicago
The L.A. cast of Many May Not Return, from left: Ismael Parra, Jay Stapleton, Blake McCormack, Carlos Lazaritt, Terry Reyes, Damian Gomez, Chyandra Anderson, Viv Lozano. Chicago performances of the play run June 21-23. | Photo courtesy of David Trujillo

CHICAGO— David Trujillo’s powerful play about death, honor, and war made a memorable impact on Los Angeles audiences last year and was reviewed enthusiastically in People’s World. Many May Not Return will indeed return—to the Prop Theatre stage in Chicago over the weekend of June 21-23.

This is an original play that is truly unique in American theatre in that it poignantly dissects the place of patriotism and military service in three generations of a Mexican-American family. The author has drawn on his own personal life, family, and community for his inspiration. Although fictionalized with dramatic flair, it has an almost documentary theatre flavor, with topical songs and narrative interspersed to lend character and indications of time and place.

“Without a doubt,” the playwright says, “this is a story about how families will face the issues of war while living in a nation that is continuously at war.” His implication—with exploding drones and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf currently dominating the news—is that America, alone among nations, seems permanently doomed to be drawn into hostilities for the foreseeable future.

Set in the Vietnam War era, Many May Not Return reflects the complex relationship in the Mexican-American community with the concept of national military service as recalled in three wars—the current one, Korea, and World War II.

Thousands of American young men, even many with parents who had served honorably in World War II, opposed being drafted to go halfway around the globe and massacre Vietnamese peasants who never did us any wrong and presented no threat to our people or way of life.

That is the period evoked in David Trujillo’s play. Just over an hour long in its original version, Many May Not Return has been expanded with new scenes that further define and draw out the characters and their complex motivations.

The author, who has also written news and feature stories for People’s World, came of age at the time of the Chicano Moratorium during the Vietnam War. Millions of Chicanos in the U.S. started wondering how come proportionally so many more of their young men were being drafted into the military—and weirdly enough couldn’t rely on a physician’s diagnosis of “bone spurs” to keep them out. And how come Chicano death rates in the war were so much higher than for white soldiers?

Trujillo looks at one California Central Valley farming family and its multi-generational involvement in America’s wars. In Trujillo’s telling, it’s not just the men who are called to serve; the young women too, seeing opportunities in the WACS or the medical corps, also want to serve their country. Partly it’s a matter of proving their patriotism, and another part (maybe bigger) is just to get out of the drudgery of arduous, unrewarding farm work, see the world and advance themselves.

When his son Mickey signs up with the Marines headed to Vietnam, Papa, a Korean War vet himself, warns, “Many may not return.” Papa had returned a decorated soldier only to find that no one would hire him because he was a Mexican. That itself was part of Mickey’s motivation: “I’ve got to get out of this place,” he says, ironically recalling the Vietnam-era Animals’ song “We’ve gotta get outta this place. If it’s the last thing we ever do” that was a favorite among American draftees in Vietnam.

Emiliana keeps sacred the box containing two American flags—one each for family members killed in World War II and Korea. “I don’t want any more flags,” she tells her son.

A roving singer (Ismael Parra returns to the role he played in the L.A. production) plays a double function: He offers songs from the period, both Mexican ballads and American numbers such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and reads the heartbreaking letters home from all three wars. “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone.”

Trujillo doesn’t fail to include the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin lie that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to drag our country into full-bore hostilities (though never formally declared as a war) against poor Vietnam. Is it possible that the Persian Gulf incidents of June 2019 are but pathetic imitations of that fateful “fake news” of over half a century ago?

As the French writer Jean Paul Sartre said so pithily, “When the rich wage war it’s the poor who die.”

The Chicago cast in preparation for the June 21-23 performances. | Photo courtesy of David Trujillo

A small but powerful role is the Drill Sergeant who trains Mickey’s newly married brother Robert when he gets drafted (with a baby on the way). The Drill Sergeant evokes all the terrifying bellowed commands intended to make a compliant, obedient soldier out of a kid, denigrating him for being Mexican—and likely a supporter of the Chicano protest demonstrations. In his letter home, written in the jungle as the Viet Cong encircles him and his sergeant, Robert sounds hopeful that he’ll have “only one more month of this shithole.”

The daughters in the family eventually learn some troubling family secrets about their relatives’ war heroism.

Trujillo’s authentic characters summon eras past and serve as object lessons to the present. Co-producing with Trujillo is Tere Gonzalez. David Reyes will direct the play, as he did in L.A.

Opening night of Many May Not Return is Fri., June 21 at 8 pm. The play completes its short Chicago run with two more performances, on Sat., June 22 at 8 pm and Sun., June 23 at 2 pm. The Prop Theatre is located at 3502 N. Elston Ave., Chicago 60618.

Tickets are on sale now at: http://buytickets.at/manymaynotreturn/255782.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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