THEATRE / Make love, not war: A play about Vietnam . . . written by a woman? Clare Bayley meets the playwright Naomi Wallace: part campus intellectual, part Kentucky farm-girl, all fighting talk

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The Independent Culture
Vietnam has rarely made it on to the stage, despite a proliferation of movies on the subject (a trilogy by David Rabe is the honourable exception, and we won't mention Miss Saigon). Odd enough, then, that In the Heart of America, opening at the Bush this week, tackles the subject; odder still that the play should be written by a woman. But then, 32-year-old Naomi Wallace is an exceptional writer.

In the Heart of America is her fourth production in this country; her most recent, the gloriously titled children's play The Girl Who Fell through a Hole in Her Jumper has just closed. But it was with The War Boys at the Finborough last year that she first drew critical attention. A play about the white, male vigilante groups who 'patrol' the Tex-Mex borders, hunting down the wetbacks to stop them entering the US, The War Boys was an unflinching study of racism and sexism, the twin bulwarks of the same oppressive system. Almost every reviewer commented, 'without wishing to seem patronising', on how surprising it was that a female playwright could convey with such devastating authenticity the language and imagination of the male psyche. And now she's done it again.

'There's a tension in her between a brilliant campus intellectual and a Kentucky farm-girl, which makes the writing alive and fairly fabulous,' comments Dominic Dromgoole, who is directing In the Heart of America. Born and raised on a cattle farm in Kentucky, the second- poorest state in the US, Wallace is one of six siblings, the children of a former Time Life journalist and a liberal Dutch mother. 'My mother's family were active against Fascism during the war, running safe houses for Jews, and she was intent that her children should grow up with an indignation against injustice. I haven't been able to get rid of that,' smiles Wallace. Looking more like kd lang than Susan Sontag, she remembers taking her pet sheep along to an anti-Vietnam demo as a child, and yet a privileged background has not blinkered her to the harsh realities of life.

'In Kentucky we have a saying, 'Thank God for Mississippi', because Mississippi is the poorest state. I'm interested in war and violence because, in Kentucky, a state of violence and war is inflicted daily on the majority of people through poverty and the class system,' explains Wallace. As a political writer, she is impatient with suggestions that she writes about men and violence either to exorcise personal demons, or as a feminist strategy. 'I'm not an issues writer,' Wallace asserts. 'The subjects I choose determine what I write about. I'm interested in long-term ideas about history and war and class struggle.'

But to talk about her writing only in terms of systems of oppression is to miss out on the sensuality and grace of it. 'It's quite right for writers to take that stance,' asserts Dromgoole. 'In fact there's a lot more turbulence and humanity to be found in the play, but she can leave others to dig that up.' Wallace herself calls her play 'just a love story - or rather, a triangle of love stories interacting in war'.

The story centres on Remzi, a Palestinian-American who fought in the Gulf War and never came back. Searching for information about his death, his sister Fairouz comes across Craver, a poor, white, Kentucky soldier who fell in love with Remzi in the Saudi desert. She also meets Lue Ming, the spirit of a Vietnamese woman whose search for her torturer and killer at the My Lai massacre leads her accidentally into Remzi's life.

'What happens to two people who fall deeply in love in a situation of war?' asks Wallace. 'One comes into conflicting loyalties. The same body that loves also kills. How does one deal with that?' Wallace also concedes a continuing fascination with the contradictions between love and violence. 'When does love become violent?' she muses. 'When is violence assumed to be an act of love? This happens on a personal level, but also politically. The Gulf War was presented by the media almost as an act of love - to restore peace and democracy in a troubled nation.' These are questions that, as Dromgoole says, 'take us into an area of shame: they make for dark, compulsive watching.'

In the Heart of America has been meticulously researched by the playwright, and facts and figures about both wars trip off her tongue. 'The US in general cultivates an amnesia, as if, when historical events are over, they no longer have any relevance. The Gulf War was inextricably linked to various wars, including Vietnam.'

In the text, certain disturbing facts have been marked with an asterisk to indicate historical data, rather than the product of a fevered imagination. 'At the beginning I was covering myself. And I had to educate myself about military weaponry, because the Gulf War was supposed to be a new kind of high-technology 'clean' war. The language of war fascinates me, the way it's used to obscure rather than to bring clarity. The names of the weapons are extremely cynical - there's one called 'Sad Eyes'. It's a way of making us think those weapons are our pals. So I began to think, how does one take the language of war and transform it into a language of love? And what are the repercussions of that?'

The result is an erotic and disturbing love scene between the two soldiers in which the vocabulary of destruction is co- opted for their mutual seduction. Wallace's writing is characterised by such daring linguistic feats as these. Perhaps because she is also a poet (her first collection, To Dance a Stony Field, will be published here next year) she writes with a lucidity and precision that allows her to get away with it. 'I'm interested in recharging language, making language become active, making it come alive on stage in a way it doesn't even in a poetry reading. The first plays were poetry, after all.' The application of the skills of a poet to the dry facts of politics creates a new kind of political drama very far from the political plays of the Seventies.

Currently living in rural Iowa with her English partner (an academic) and three young daughters, her career is blossoming on both sides of the Atlantic. She is working on an adaptation of William Wharton's Birdy for the West End stage, and Tony Kushner is planning to direct In the Heart of America at the Public Theater in New York later this year. Meanwhile, the two faces of Naomi Wallace continue to jostle for position.

'To me, capitalism is a system of violence which is connected to the body,' explains the campus intellectual. Then the Kentucky farm-girl chips in: 'It destroys the body, which is sexual. So how does sensuality survive in the face of a system intent on destroying it? That's what this play is all about: how do we continue to love in the face of oppression? In the end, it's just a love story.'

'In the Heart of America' opens at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush Green, London W12, on 5 August. Previews from tonight (Booking: 081-743 3388)

(Photograph omitted)