The further time distances us from Vietnam, the more the realities of America’s misguided war become apocryphal and the more its pop-cultural framing diminishes our perception and overshadows our shortening memories of the horror. Grist for writers, filmmakers and playwrights in the 10 years or so following the 1973 Paris Accord, the war to some extent came to be symbolized by the head-trip images of “Apocalypse Now” or the iconic helicopter of “Miss Saigon” or the confessional memoir “Born on the Fourth of July.” History books for those born after the mid-‘90s teach My Lai and Agent Orange and napalm, but try asking a Generation Z-er why we were in Vietnam in the first place, then brace yourself for a blank stare. Mixing art, commentary and history is a redoubtable task. Explaining war to anyone who hasn’t been in one is more formidable still.
Actor-playwright Amlin Gray tried in 1981 with a black comedy called How I Got That Story, which episodically chronicles the intellectual and emotional awakenings of a reporter descended into the hell of “Am-bo Land,” tape recorder and notepad at the ready. The guerrillas, G.I.’s, bar girls and martyrs he meets erode then destroy his naivete. His life, as with the doomed and the dutiful alike, will never be the same.
Thirty-one years later, How I Got That Story is on stage at the Tenth Avenue Theatre downtown, where Seema Sueko directs a Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company production that utilizes only two actors: Brian Bielawski as the reporter and Greg Watanabe as all the other characters, male and female. Bielawski and Watanabe are as tireless as they are tenacious with their portrayals, surviving a scattershot and flawed first act before collaboratively striking a cathartic tone in Act 2, when the scenes of How I Got That Story are allowed to breathe.
The self-immolation of a Vietnamese man and a numbing visit to an orphanage are resonant moments. Some of the chaotic combat and escape sequences are less successful, and the human-generated sound effects suggest improv troupers who played with a tape recorder.
A pre-show video of testimonials supports the Mo’olelo production’s message that we should never forget. At the very least, we remember again for one night, even if we still don’t understand.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat