THERATRE / Enemy camp: Rhoda Koenig on Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America at the Bush

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The Independent Culture
The ghost of a Vietnamese woman, who appears in the American South, announces that she is looking for what first sounds like Kali, the Hindu symbol of bloodthirsty destruction. When she says that she wants 'a small jewellery store in Columbus, Georgia', it becomes clear that Lue Ming is seeking a figure of real-life devilry - Lt William Calley, who presided over the massacre at My Lai.

Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America, though subtitled 'A Gulf War Drama', is concerned with Vietnam as well, as it superimposes the barbarity of the earlier war on the other. Remzi, an Arab-American soldier, and Craver, a white miner's son, are shown how to extract information from a prisoner without breaking 'the Geneva constrictions' by a sergeant who also embodies, in dialogues with Lue Ming, Calley's soul. 'What's done is done,' he tells her. 'And what is done,' she says, 'is often done again and again and again.'

Like a number of Vietnam casualties, Remzi (whose military career is shown in flashback) has died under mysterious circumstances. Back in Kentucky, Fairouz, his sister, questions Craver to find out why and how he was killed. But Craver, we learn, has his own secret to protect: in the Gulf he was, as he repeatedly exults, Remzi's white-trash faggot lover.

Wallace packs a great deal into her short, intense play, often more than it can support. There is an analogy between sex and warfare: Craver becomes excited as he recites to Fairouz the names of weapons - Sad Eyes, Beehive, DU Penetrator - and the litany is also an element of his sandpit seduction. There is a theme of retribution: Remzi's death may be a punishment for his failure to protect his sister from attack, just as America's messy involvement in the Gulf War may have been caused by its refusal to learn the lessons of Vietnam.

Many of the scenes with Fairouz and the two soldiers are conducted in arch dialogue, but the fantastic encounters have a much stronger reality and a more supple use of language. In Dominic Dromgoole's well-drilled cast, Toshie Ogura, giving a delicately gauged performance as the anguished yet impish ghost, flies off with the show.

Part of the reason that Wallace's play doesn't really work is the difficulty of presenting a historical play. Odd bits of information about Calley's crimes and the repulsive public support for them are dropped by the ghost, but not in a way that makes a coherent or affecting picture. Yet there is a larger vagueness at the heart of the play, which leaves us no wiser about what, exactly, Vietnam had to do with a war against a different people, in a different part of the world, for a different reason, and in a very different social and political atmosphere. With its frequent gay-pride statements, it seems more concerned with love than war, but whatever Wallace has to say on that subject is buried, as well, in a storm of liberal attitudinising.

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