The Play “Coming in Hot”
by Joanna Frueh
Tenderness is not what I expected from a play based on a book by women soldiers. Yet tenderness is the quality that has most stayed with me from Coming in Hot. The actor Jeanmarie Simpson delivered the work as a monologue that propelled into the audience the individual emotional atmosphere of 14 “characters,” the authors who had served in the United States military .
On a bare, shallow stage the script from which Simpson read sat on a black music stand while next to her the sound artist Vicki Brown, on viola, played her own music, whose ethereal eeriness functioned to paradoxically lift many of the stories from grimness, such as corpses described in detail and a fellow soldier/rapist eluded, and to ground those stories in tonal roots. I heard angelic music. I heard the music of soil, of death, of passions confined, plundered, gushing.
Huge images, including those of women troops, Baghdad street scenes, the solider authors themselves in military gear, and Simpson performing the play in a different space and costumed as a soldier–white T-shirt, dog tag–and tending a coffin, projected to the left of her and Brown. The images held my attention far less than did the performers. I like LIVE. I like its directness and expressiveness. I like being in the presence of human beings breathing, sweating, and creating. With them, I feel my own presence. I liked the simplicity of dress–black, which I read as neutral more than funereal. In black’s neutrality and with my eyes mostly on the performers, their art as well as the crispness of the writing grew far larger than the visually large impact of the projections. With Simpson and Brown, I felt my humanness.
“Coming in hot” is military jargon for arriving with guns blazing. That’s often what heroes do, both real and mythic ones. The weapons of heroes may be lethal to human flesh (Genghis Khan) or loving to the human heart (Buddha). Either way, heroes produce social or cultural change. (I include spiritual change within those 2 categories.) Heroes are unique and special. Everyone is probably not a hero, although people have the capacity to be one. I’m defining “hero” differently from the way that I often hear it used today, as an adjective applied to virtually all soldiers returning from Iraq. In general, people use “hero” loosely.
The artist Barbara Kruger lampoons that looseness as she critiques the convention of the hero, the always-a-guy with public or personal, romantic or professional muscle. In a text-only work from 1983, in which What big muscles you have! in red overlays black text on a white ground, the “feminine” compliment, “Ooh, what big muscles you have!” turns into absurdity and ingratiation as we read line after line composed of “compliments” such as “My lordship,” “My Rambo,” “My baby mogul,” “My sugar daddy,” “My banker,” “My pimp.” Looking over the list, I end up thinking that any male in any role could be on it. The hero reduced to pablum.
The heat with which heroes blaze into us gives them the power to serve as activists in our lives. Artists can be such heroes. No surprise that “My great artist” is in Kruger’s list. The artist as hero is a repeated, though often implicit, theme within art history. The controversial artist or art work–heroes do tend to be controversial–often deals with social problems, frequently reflecting rather than transforming them. In other words, we get reiterations of issues rather than offerings of solution. Some have responded to Coming in Hot as controversial, and on the blog for the play I read, “Controversy is a good thing.” Our culture loves controversy and believes in its capacity to bring fortune, fame, or at least talk to a person, event, or work of art. Activism interests me far more than does controversy, which I see as a distraction, from something that either may or not be significant, both affective and effective. Controversy can become people’s focus, whereas activism needs that focus.
In this activist play we listen to a group of people whose speech about their own experiences and perceptions tends to go without a public hearing. That, to me, is the activism in Coming in Hot–women first. And it’s women first throughout the entire creation and production, from the authors of the book Powder to its editors Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain to its publication by Kore Press, devoted to works by women and published by Bowden, to the book’s adaptation for performance by Bowden, Cain, and Simpson to the very live art by Simpson and Brown.
Brown’s music was heated, it was freezing too, and its vibrations enwrapped Simpson’s corporeality–her body, her voice. That voice and her demeanor became increasingly tender as the performance progressed. Greater softness, which was a matter of vocal malleability, and greater nuance produced a compassionate humor as well as that tenderness, which I felt at its height near and into the end of the performance. During that time the character whose voice and gruesome yet poetic remembrances recur throughout Coming in Hot calls herself “mother of the dead.” The author of those remembrances prepared and processed the bodies of United States dead in a Mortuary Affairs Unit, which was work for which she volunteered while fulfilling formal duties as a Marine. Mother of the dead–she is the overarching activist in the play: mortuary goddess, a gentle Charon “ferrying” the spirit remains of her comrades wherever it is those remains go, speaking in the utmost gentle caress with the love whose realization, which is an activism unlike any other, can end all wars.
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