When fielding questions about his one-man show, "Another American: Asking and Telling," Marc Wolf often finds himself explaining why he's performing the play now. After all, his topic--the military's treatment of gay personnel--has largely faded from public discourse since the furor that led to the adoption of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 1993. But that's the point.
"People think that they've heard about the gays in the military thing," Wolf says. "But you haven't heard from any gay people in the military since 'don't ask, don't tell.' They're not allowed to talk about it."
The policy has "accomplished its goal," he adds. "It buried the issue; it silenced gay people in the military."
"Don't ask, don't tell" emerged as a compromise after the issue of gays in the military engulfed the early days of President Clinton's first term. Clinton had pledged to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces, but after a firestorm of controversy, he ended up backing a policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve, but prohibited them from talking about or acting upon their sexuality.
Debate at the time ended up further "stereotyping gay people as people who aren't fit to fight, and stereotyping the military more as just a group of bigots," Wolf says. "I had a sense it was more complicated and more interesting than that."
So Wolf, a New York actor, traveled the country to talk to about 200 people--mostly veterans and active-duty soldiers, gay as well as straight--about gays in the military and "don't ask, don't tell." Learning interview techniques on the fly, he prompted his subjects to tell their stories and share their opinions.
After three years of gathering material, he culled it to 18 subjects--13 men and five women--whose stories he tells in "Another American." In the documentary style advanced by Anna Deavere Smith in such shows as "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," he re-creates his subjects' words and gestures, giving voice to those who believe gays and lesbians should serve openly in the military, as well as those who don't.
Wolf won an Obie Award for the show's off-Broadway run in 1999-2000 and went on to perform at regional theaters from Washington, D.C. (where he won a Helen Hayes Award), to San Francisco. Next Sunday, he opens his play at the Mark Taper Forum, where he will perform it in repertory with "In Real Life," Charlayne Wood-ard's one-woman, autobiographical show about a young actress' dreams of making a difference.
Wolf, who is gay, says he's not trying to tell audiences what to think about the military's policies. Indeed, he himself isn't sure what to think. "I let all the people mix up inside me, and I try not to form a hard opinion," he says.
Among those people are a former combat soldier in Vietnam's deadly Mekong Delta whose taste in short shorts earned him the nickname "Mary Alice" and whose light spirit kept everyone laughing; Miriam Ben Shalom, the first openly gay person to be reinstated by court order and return to duty; Northwestern University professor Charles Moskos, a military specialist and architect of "don't ask, don't tell"; and Dorothy Hajdys, mother of seaman Allen Schindler, who was beaten to death in 1992 by shipmates after months of anti-gay harassment.
At least one of Wolf's subjects is deeply moved by the result. "Every time I see that play, I cry," says Don MacIver, a decorated member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, otherwise known as the Green Berets, during the Vietnam War. "When Allen Schindler's mother starts talking about being unable to identify him because his face was smashed in so bad, you can't help but see how horrible andreally dishonorable this whole policy is. It's a travesty; it's an American injustice; it's an American tragedy."
MacIver says he believes gays and lesbians should serve openly in the military because "honesty is a greater virtue than hiding in the closet, and people looking around, wondering, 'I wonder who in my unit is gay?' That's where suspicion arises; that's where mistrust happens."
"A lot of gays who want to go into the military are patriotic," MacIver adds. "They're looking for advancement; they're looking to improve their lives; they want to serve their country. To exclude them simply because of who they are is the most absurd thing in the world." Wolf, 39, never served in the military, but with his lean, compact build and close-cropped dark hair, he could easily pass for the military types he portrays. Reserved and thoughtful, he seems more eager to talk about the people he interviewed than about himself.
As an actor in New York, he secured his most prominent credit when he spent a couple of months in the mid-'90s on the soap opera "Guiding Light," playing, as he jokingly puts it, the "very politically incorrect role" of Brent Lawrence/Marian Crane, a cross-dressing character confused about whether he was a man or a woman.