Category Archives: Vietnam

Another Shade of Dark

My plays have never been known for being especially frothy. Blue is, apparently, my favored color–in clothing, language, and music. I suppose that reflects my outlook. Humor, however, serves an an antidote to the blues, on-stage and in life, so I try to find it even in the heaviest work. Another requisite in tackling the serious is to do it very, very well. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in that, but, believe me, I have tried. Serious themes deserves the best, and I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if I’ve done the work justice.

The last few years, I’ve largely focused more on the fantastic: plays exploring the psyche or utilizing magic realism or alternate realities, and I’m turning, also, to exploring the human condition through our relations to the arts, of late writing about music and photography. But, for a good number of years, I was known as the “war guy.”

That is, I wrote a series of plays–four in all–about war and its aftermath. Three explore the subject through the characters of journalists: Waiting on Sean Flynn (Vietnam); Liberation (Bosnia); and Depth of Field (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and 9/11). Reporters, serving as our eyes and ears during conflicts open a breathtaking, immediate window into war narratives. Plus I used to be a reporter–never a war correspondent, though (I get asked)–and I have great admiration for those who put themselves at risk to the show the world the cruelties of which we are capable. They’re also damned interesting people, which makes them fun to write about.

Flynn and Liberation have been successfully produced multiple times (and Liberation has been published by Original Works Publishing). Depth of Field remains in progress. I’ve finished a number of drafts, but I still haven’t quite cracked the code on that one. I haven’t given up, either.

The fourth play, Next of Kin, stands as a sort of coda to the trilogy, shifting the focus from reporters to soldiers and their families, whose vital stories I felt remained somewhat unaddressed by the other plays. Next of Kin, looking at Iraq, is also the most contemporary work. It’s a good, strong play, I think, which had a very successful staged reading last year with the splendid folks at Portland Theatre Works; I’m currently shopping the premiere to theatres around the country.

Though I never planned it, the plays developed their own arc. Flynn asks why we’ve come to war, and whether we should stay or go? Liberation, acknowledging we’re trapped in war, asks how much do we sacrifice to tell the story? Depth of Field asks whether, after surviving war and paying the price, why return. And Next of Kin asks what we do and who we are when its over.

Writing these plays has been, I think, a substantial, unique accomplishment. (I have kind of a dream of having them collected in a single volume someday. Maybe it’ll happen, though it’s hard to say, given the state of both theatre and publishing these days.) I didn’t set out to do it: it just happened. They’ve made me a few bucks along the way–not very much. But they have rewarded me, however, so richly in terms of experience, introducing me to people and places I’ll never forget (and never want to, even when the memories are ghastly).

They’ve given me a chance to work with brilliant directors, actors, and designers on a subject that seems to bond artists they way soldiers and reporters bond in the field: everyone knows this is a serious, important issue that demands our best, and the subject tends to strip away our bullshit because, let’s face it, it’s about living or dying, killing or being killed. When you work like that, you get down to the core of your collaborators, exposing who you really are, and it’s one of the primary reasons I have such deep affection and admiration for those who work in this tough, sometimes ephemeral business. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn to like your colleagues, and they become your friends; if you’re really lucky, you’ll come to love them.

The plays have also afforded me some of the most intense audience interactions of my career. During ther performance, the theatre feels beyond electric, the air supercharged. Total strangers, speaking to me after shows, have told me stories they may have never told their families. After a performance of Liberation, a Bosnian woman told me how she walked, barefoot, away from her hometown as its men and boys were being systematically slaughtered. And then she thanked me for having the courage to tell the truth. Never, ever have I felt so simultaneously honored and humbled. That moment remains a treasure I will carry to my end.

Finally, this subject has allowed me to talk to and exchange letters and e-mails with with veterans and war correspondents, which has been worth every minute of sweating through the work, worry, and heartache that comes with making theatre.

I feel these plays have deepened my soul. When I pick up the morning newspaper and read so-and-so many have been killed or wounded wherever they’ve been killed or wounded this day, the pictures and feelings that come to my mind may be different than yours. Not better or worse, just…different. If you have a heart, you can’t write about war without it changing you, and you can’t write about war effectively if you don’t have a heart. Sometimes I think it’s damaged me, you know? Just a little. Knowing a little too much about the worst humans can be and the most terrible things that can happen to us. Whatever I’ve learned and kept inside, It’s nothing compared to those who have been there, and it’s paid me back more than I could ever imagine.

This Memorial Day, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I just want to take a moment thank all those who have served–and those who have reported the world’s self-inflicted catastrophes–for putting your very lives at risk. That’s it. A small and quiet acknowledgement that’s but a pebble in the ocean compared with your experience. With a special thanks, from as deep as I can reach, for those who have been so gracious to share your best and worst stories with me.

Here’s to the day when all our work becomes obsolete.


Flynn


A couple days ago, the news broke big that a couple investigators may have found Sean Flynn’s remains in Cambodia. As quickly as the story arose, doubts began. Tim Page, Flynn’s close friend, expressed his doubts, backpedaling began, and conflicting reports arose. The bones are headed for a forensic laboratory. Perhaps we’ll have an answer. Perhaps not. Here’s a link to one of the better stories on the discovery (by the very talented journalist Tim King, who’s put in his own time in war zones):

Sean Flynn’s Remains Possibly Found in Cambodia

It’s fitting somehow, this blurring, part of a story with so many reflections, fading memories, wishful thinking. What we do know is that in 1970, Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son, was working as a photojournalist covering war in Cambodia along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. They sped down a road on red motorcycles, and they never came back. The rest is hearsay.

I learned about Flynn and Stone from Michael Herr’s brilliant book “Dispatches.” Years later, I had a sudden idea for a play juxtaposing Flynn’s story with the fall of Saigon. The result was a two-act drama, “Waiting on Sean Flynn” which went on to be produced in Chicago, Portland, Tampa, and Detroit. Though not readily apparent, the title was a play on “Waiting for Godot”; like Godot, Sean never returns.

Flynn’s sudden reappearance in the news has left me conflicted. I never knew the man—he disappeared when I was 10 years old—though I’ve spoken or corresponded with many who have known him. (And thanks again, to all of you, for sharing your time and stories.) But, in writing a play, you immerse yourself, creating a world in your head that feels, tastes, smells real, and it does you a strange kind of damage. You come out the other side changed. Some plays more than others.

“Waiting on Sean Flynn” was one of those plays. The world it created became so real to me that sometimes I pine for it. I find myself missing Flynn, which makes no sense at all, but the sense of loss and grief is real, a credit to the power of the imagination. Whatever I wrote is but a wisp of smoke compared to the accounts written by those who were there, such as Page, Herr, and Perry Deane Young, who wrote the very good “Two of the Missing.” Their Flynn breaks my heart, but it’s my Flynn that twists inside my chest when I see those familiar pictures of the handsome young guy in the boonie hat. That’s the trade-off you get for the gift of, for a moment, opening the doorway.

I hope the remains turn out to be Flynn’s or Stone’s, for the sake of their friends and family. But my Flynn will never be found. He’s forever riding that motorcycle down that road. He always disappears in a barrage of explosions and smoke.

And then the lights fade.


Photographer who took famous Saigon photo dies

HONG KONG – Hugh Van Es, a Dutch photojournalist who covered the Vietnam War and recorded the most famous image of the fall of Saigon in 1975 — a group of people scaling a ladder to a CIA helicopter on a rooftop — died Friday morning in Hong Kong, his wife said. He was 67 years old.

Van Es died in Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, where he had lived for more than 35 years. He suffered a brain hemorrhage last week and never regained consciousness, his wife Annie said. Hospital officials declined to comment.

Slender, tough-talking and always ready with a quip, Van Es was considered by colleagues to be fearless and resourceful. He remained a towering figure after the war in journalism circles in Asia, including his adopted home in Hong Kong.

“Obviously he will be always remembered as one of the great witnesses of one of the great dramas in the second half of the 20th century,” said Ernst Herb, president of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondent Club.

“He really captured the spirit of foreign reporting. He was quite an inspiration,” Herb said.

He arrived in Hong Kong as a freelancer in 1967, joined the South China Morning Post as chief photographer, and got a chance the following year to go to Vietnam as a soundman for NBC News, which he took. After a brief stint, he joined The Associated Press photo staff in Saigon from 1969-72 and then covered the last three years of the war from 1972-75 for United Press International.

His photo of a wounded soldier with a tiny cross gleaming against his dark silhouette, taken 40 years ago this month, became the best-known picture from the May 1969 battle of Hamburger Hill.

And his shot of the helicopter escape from a Saigon rooftop on April 29, 1975 became a stunning metaphor for the desperate U.S. withdrawal and its overall policy failure in Vietnam.

As North Vietnamese forces neared the city, upwards of 1,000 Vietnamese joined American military and civilians fleeing the country, mostly by helicopters from the U.S. Embassy roof.

A few blocks distant, others climbed a ladder on the roof of an apartment building that housed CIA officials and families, hoping to escape aboard a helicopter owned by Air America, the CIA-run airline.

From his vantage point on a balcony at the UPI bureau several blocks away, Van Es recorded the scene with a 300-mm lens — the longest one he had.

It was clear, Van Es said later, that not all the approximately 30 people on the roof would be able to escape, and the UH-1 Huey took off overloaded with about a dozen.

The photo earned Van Es considerable fame, but in later years he told friends he spent a great deal of time explaining that it was not a photo of the embassy roof, as was widely assumed.

The image gained even greater iconic status after the musical Miss Saigon featured the final Americans evacuating from the city from the Embassy roof by helicopter. Van Es was upset about the play’s use of the image that he so famously captured, and believed he was ripped off. He had long considered legal action but decided against it.

Born in Hilversum, the Netherlands, Hubert Van Es learned English from hanging out as a kid with soldiers during World War II.

He said he decided to become a photographer after going to a photo exhibit at a local museum when he was 13 years old and seeing the work of legendary war photographer Robert Capa.

After graduating from college, he started working as a photographer in 1959 with the Nederlands Foto Persbureau in Amsterdam, but Asia became his home.

When the Vietnam war ended in 1975, van Es returned to Hong Kong where he freelanced for major American and European newspapers and magazines and shot still photos for many Hollywood movies on locations across Asia.

Van Es, who served as president of the Hong Kong FCC in the early 1980s, was often found holding court at the club, his firsthand accounts and opinions sought out by reporters new and old.

“His presence there is really memorable,” Herb said.

He covered the Moro rebellion in the Philippines and was among the horde of journalists who flew into Kabul to cover the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. CBS cameraman Derek Williams got through immigration but everyone else was stopped and held in the transit lounge.

“As they were then being shepherded back to the plane,” Williams recalled, “Hugh saw an open door to his left, and just made a break for it with only his camera bag. He ran through the terminal and jumped into a taxi to try to get to the Intercontinental Hotel.”

Afghan police arrested van Es, but the plane had taken off so they took him to the hotel. Williams said he and van Es spent three days in Kabul before being expelled. Van Es’ still photos, for Time magazine, were the first to capture Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan.

He and his wife, Annie, whom he met in Hong Kong, were married for 39 years. He is survived by Annie and a sister in Holland.

___

Marquez reported from Hong Kong and Pyle from Washington. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer in New York and Dikky Sinn in Hong Kong contributed to this report.


Waiting on Sean Flynn All Over Again


And I’m happy to say that due to advance ticket sales from veterans’ and anti-war groups, “Waiting on Sean Flynn” has just been upgraded from a 150-seater to a 500-seater.


The Actors in My Head

I’m occasionally asked what else I do in theatre—as if writing and producing plays isn’t enough. More specifically, people want to know if I act. No. I do not. And there should be many, many people grateful for this decision. I have directed and did okay, but I’d much rather leave that work to people who are trained, capable, and actually enjoy having everyone entrust their artistic integrity in their care. But I do not, should not, could not act. Not with a cat, in a hat, or in a black box.

There are, however, a whole troupe of actors living in my head, and they come out regularly (and under scale) when I write. That is, when I’m writing a play, I not only see a stage in my head, but I see actors playing the parts, and I feel like I’m all those actors playing those parts, and, when it’s going very well, the difference between actor and character and myself disappears; so that I’m actually the people in the play experiencing the events in the play as though they’re real. This is called putting your borderline personality disorder to work.

But it can whack you once in awhile. In my play “Waiting on Sean Flynn,” there’s a harrowing scene that still freaks me out when I read it or see it performed where one character nearly gets shot in the head and then reacts afterwards with stunningly savage violence. I remember writing it in a very nice coffeehouse with tasteful art on the walls and windows looking out on a perfect summer’s evening, with all the pretty, happy people walking by, flirting and showing their very attractive flesh. And there I was hunched over a notebook, probably with my eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare, hunkered down on a hot LZ (landing zone) and jamming a .45 into the mouth of a Vietnamese soldier who’d just been holding the same gun to my head seconds before. No wonder I’ll occasionally look up from writing to see someone watching me fearfully; without knowing it, I’ve been glowering at them like Billy Bob Thornton in “Slingblade.” “I’ll have another espresso, uh-huh.”

After writing that scene, I was sweating and feeling like I couldn’t get my breath. My cashier seemed to be yards away as I paid my bill and speaking from some place that muffled her voice. I walked the streets of Northwest Portland with this sense that all these people, laughing and having fun and trying to remember if they had tucked condoms in their purse or wallet, had absolutely no idea what had just happened, that I’d just nearly been killed, just nearly killed someone, and that maybe I wasn’t entirely—heh heh—in my right mind. I spent the next couple hours sitting alone on my front porch and listening to The Doors.

“Waiting on Sean Flynn” had a reading in L.A. earlier this year, and I heard back from the director that one actor said he’d “give his right nut” to play that role. Oh, dear actors: be careful what you wish for.