Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of reading the full-length play Mama Mama Can’t You See written by Stan Mayer and Cecilia Fairchild, speaking with Cecilia, and then seeing the rockin’, brave, and surreal production at Coin & Ghost directed by Zach Davidson on Veterans Day, which was opening weekend.
The promotional materials tell us that Mama Mama Can’t You See, “Isn’t a play about war. It is a play how to tell a war story.” For me, it’s about memory and how memory pushes and pulls within our being in a myriad of ways of complexity and authenticity.
The play is based on Stan Mayer’s life as a Marine during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early 2000s. There are eight characters in the play: four Marines who live within the realities and memories of that war, and four young women who embody another aspect of war. Cecilia pondered for a long time what to call these four characters—women who provided sex for a living during the Civil War, and have direct encounters with the Marines of 2005 Iraq.
For Cecilia, modern terminology didn’t fit the female characters she envisioned, who would tell this evocative and complicated part of the story. She discovered through her research that the etymology of whore is unblemished and meant “dear, loved, and desire” in distant times. And so she ran with her instincts and called these four characters whores, women who use their bodies to satisfy the needs and desires of the battle-weary, and to buy food for their mothers and their baby sisters.
During our conversation about the Whores, I inquired about the characters’ origin and their meaning within the context of Stan’s story. Cecilia talked about “sacred listening” and how she was “being pushed this way to tell the story this way.” I loved when she connected this push and pull to the act of sacred listening and how this enabled the characters to appear and unfold before her.
I knew then that she understood something about war and love, death and loss, and survivor’s guilt that most of us don’t. Perhaps I understood as well because I was born in an Army hospital during war and raised in the military, and have been working with veterans, active duty, and their families since 2010 to empower them tell their stories through the written word. I have learned through experience that listening is one of the most important and crucial aspects of this kind of work, which enabled me to understand Cecilia’s world and process as a playwright. To truly listen is not an easy task, but it is vital for the playwright to still and to listen because that is when and where the magic happens.
Each of us has a process when we write. For Cecilia, she says it is like “reading your own tea leaves as you’re writing.” What amazing and evocative tea leaves live inside her creative imagination! To her, “the theater is a place where we can dream” and where “anything can happen.” Mama Mama Can’t You See embodies a dream—or nightmare might be a more appropriate word—where anything can happen.
Cecilia also drew upon personal experience to breathe deeper layers and aspects into the characters and the play. She attended the ten-year anniversary of the pivotal and deadly firefight Stan experienced during his first tour in Iraq—the firefight that is the inspiration for the play. At the reunion in San Antonio, Cecilia listened to the war stories of those who survived and those who died on the battlefield. And she has carried what she heard ever since. Even though she didn’t experience the battle firsthand, she lives with the stories of the dead and the survivors, feeling the loss of life and innocence and knowing, “war is a cavern of death and near death.” Then she took my breath away when she said: “They died inside of me anyway, the men who died at war.” This is what sacred listening looks like in our mundane reality. This is what carrying the wounds of war that others experience looks like. This is what carrying the memories of those who experience the realities of war looks like… And for all of that, I honor and respect her deeply.
Towards the end of our dialogue, I said to Cecilia, “You’re the Civil War Whore.” She gently agreed. And I could hear the depth of how my knowing this—how my speaking those words out loud—resonated within her. In a way, what I experienced at that moment is sacred listening—how I could hear her heart and memories, her love and loss, within my heart and my memories.
I also asked her what she wanted me to experience, to feel as I would sit in the audience and watch the play unfold inside the theater. She responded, “[I’d like] for your body to open and molecules be rearranged somehow.“ She wanted the experience to be “almost like a spell”… “a series of words [that] would play across your body” (love this one!!) and for me and audiences to have a “thrilling out of body experience.”
What a wish list for a playwright!
Even though Cecilia wasn’t involved in this current production at Coin & Ghost, her heart and her story are ever present and alive on the stage. As I sat in the darkened theater during the performance, I felt myself come alive as the actors moved with primal energy and danced seductively. The dialogue played across my body, casting a spell on me and taking me places I dared to go. The bluesy rendition of the military cadence “Mama Mama Can’t You See” sung by one of the Whores as she walked to the Marine laying on the battlefield, haunts me—I can’t get it out of my mind and heart. And to be honest, I don’t want to.
Coin & Ghost’s “Mama Mama Can’t You See” runs through December 10th at Studio/Stage on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm (dark November 23 through November 26.) For tickets and information, visit coinandghost.org.