Falling Skies, Fallen Soldiers, and Eyes Turned Skyward:
Unstrung Harpist Productions Presents Body Armor at the Capital Fringe Festival
On April 29th, in Afghanistan, a civilian plane contracted by the military, designated NCR Flight 102 and carrying cargo out of Bagram Airfield, unexpectedly yawed sideways, stalled out, and crashed shortly after takeoff. A ground vehicle’s dash cam recorded the event with disturbing clarity and proximity, so much so that to my eyes, jaded by thirty years of advancement in moviemaking and special effects, it simply didn’t look real.
There had been human beings in that plane, seven American crewmen. (All the media outlets made a point of mentioning the number of American casualties; they always do this, implying, I suppose, that our lives are somehow of inherently greater value). The cargo had come unstrapped during takeoff, the pilots had lost control, and just like that, in the span of a few seconds, all those lives were snuffed out. The footage played on CNN for a few days while pundits speculated as to the cause of the crash, and then it petered out, just like a hundred other stories about the casualties of our conflicts in the Middle East.
I couldn’t get the images out of my head as quickly. I had just finished the first draft of a play about a military cargo plane leaving Bagram Airfield only to be shot down by insurgent forces, a play I intended to premiere at the Capital Fringe Festival in a few months. I was not sure what to do. Was it in some way disrespectful to the crewmen’s memories, their families, to parallel so nearly their experience? My instinct said no, it was coincidence and the inevitability of art imitating life, but was that instinct colored by my own desire to see my work performed?
That play is called Body Armor, and while its inspiration did not come from this specific event, it did stem from the war that brought it about, and the ones that preceded it, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, stretching all the way back to my childhood and beyond. As a child it was easy to think of those wars as justified, proper, the stalwart defending the downtrodden against their would-be oppressors. There are those who still believe that today, and not without reason. There are others who see more selfish motives, financial or political or corporate, behind our involvement in these wars. They, too, have their reasons.
What interested me more was what caused a soldier to enter such a war. What reasons could convince someone to leave the safety and comfort of home for the harsh environments and danger of foreign soil in wartime? Was it patriotism and the belief in the rightness of our cause? Is war intoxicating, as described by Hemingway; addictive, as depicted by Tim O’Brien? Are the American homes these soldiers leave behind perhaps neither as safe nor as comfortable as I had once believed?
For that matter, what possesses those we fight against to wage a war they cannot possibly win? Are they brainwashed, victims of a religion and a culture that denies them the truth of the conflict? Evil masterminds without regard for functioning society or human life? Is their patriotism as strong as ours, in its way?
In Body Armor, three American soldiers are trapped in a downed plane near Bagram, cut off from rescue by Taliban activity, with their only tie to the outside world a mysterious woman on the radio. As they examine the decisions that led them to face death on foreign soil, the line between insurgent and peacekeeper blurs. Body Armor explores the themes of misguided patriotism, military overreach and corruption, and the fallen ideals of a country that has decided it is the world’s army.
While this play’s only connection to the story of NCR Flight 102 is the coincidence of subject matter, it felt wrong to ignore. If not for that coincidence, I would likely have marveled at the footage of the crashed plane and moved on, as I have a hundred times before at images of bodies in the streets of Syria, nighttime explosions in Baghdad seen through infrared, or suicide bombers at a mosque in Pakistan. (The media would, no doubt, have emphasized the fact that there were no American casualties).
To admit, though certainly not atone for, my own jadedness and apathy towards the human suffering that lies at the root of such events, all profits from the show will be donated to the families of the crew of Flight 102. (If you wish to donate directly, visit their website.
While this could easily be interpreted as a callous marketing tactic, I’d like to believe instead that I’m trying to teach myself something: that the decisions we make, as people, as institutions, as countries, affect individuals in ways that even the wisest cannot calculate, and that any decision to put people in harm’s way–whether they be American or no–deserves more than a few days’ coverage on CNN.
If this play can be one tiny brick in the vast bridge we have to build between the way we look at war, at soldiers in war, and the way we ought to, then it will have value. It has already become one for me.
– Evan Crump
Artistic Director, Unstrung Harpist Productions
by Evan Crump
directed by Keegan Cassady
featuring Bill Gordon, Nick Martin, Kevin O’Reilly, and Devora Zack
1021 7th Street NW, 3rd Floor
Washington, DC 20001
Saturday, July 13, 3 PM-4:30 PM
Wednesday, July 17, 8:45 PM-10:15 PM
Saturday, July 20, 10 PM-11:30 PM
Wednesday, July 24, 10 PM-11:30 PM
Friday, July 26, 10:15 PM-11:45 PM
Sunday, July 28, 2:45 PM-4:15 PM
This production is presented as a part of the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival, a program of the Washington, DC non-profit Capital Fringe.