Exploring war onstage at Hancher with ‘My Lai’

My Lai

Hancher — Wednesday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Rinde Eckert as Hugh Thompson in ‘My Lai.’ — video still

It has been nearly 50 years the Mỹ Lai Massacre occurred at the hands of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War on March 16, 1968. To commemorate the fallen and those who stood up in the name of humanity against such crimes, Hancher auditorium will host the operatic performance My Lai, featuring the world-famous Kronos Quartet, vocalist Rinde Eckert and multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, for one-night in Iowa City on March 21 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-50.

One of the most infamous war crimes in the long history of the Vietnam War, the systematic slaughter of civilians at the hamlet of Mỹ Lai in South Vietnam was committed by American soldiers from the Charlie Company, 11th Brigade. The history of My Lai was first chronicled by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in a series of news articles forming the basis of his 1970 book My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and its Aftermath, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

Hersh wrote, “When Army investigators reached the barren area in November, 1969, in connection with the My Lai probe in the United States, they found mass graves at three sites, as well as a ditch full of bodies. It was estimated that between 450 and 500 people—most of them women, children and old men—had been slain and buried there.” (Pg. 75)

The stage show My Lai lays bare the massacre and the courageous efforts of U.S. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot who witnessed the massacre and tried to stop it. Thompson blew the whistle that resulted in a military trial exposing these crimes and the roles of 26 participants such as Lieutenant William Calley Jr. who was convicted and released early from prison. Thompson was later awarded the Soldier’s Medal and retired from the military with the rank of Major.

This dramatic story, written by composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman, is told through Thompson’s perspective. Thompson’s role will be performed by vocalist and University of Iowa graduate Rinde Eckert, accompanied by instrumental arrangements from Kronos Quartet and the musical stylings of Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ.

My Lai is the first libretto by Chessman, who is primarily a fiction writer. In an artist’s statement, Chessman wrote that she has been able to “stretch [her] musical wings” in creating the piece with “such an inspiring group of artists and musicians.”

“Hugh Thompson increasingly emerged for me as a compelling, extraordinary figure,” Chessman wrote. “I sought first to listen for his voice, and somehow this voice — open, plainspoken, humble, yearning and furious, forthright, baffled, pained and sorrowful — came to me powerfully. I wrote the first draft of the libretto trusting this voice and following the arc of that terrible morning, involving the three unauthorized landings this 24-year-old pilot made with his reconnaissance helicopter and young two-person crew.”

Berger elaborated on the story’s narrative structure in his statement, describing My Lai as a work that “seeks a mode of expression in which the political and societal underpinnings of conflict and its senseless brutality are set through a character study of an individual who unintentionally becomes inextricably bound up in the fray of war.”

“Scored for tenor, traditional Vietnamese instruments, and string quartet, the work takes place in a hospital room, where Thompson, surrendering to cancer, faces death under hospice care,” Berger wrote. “Feeling neither heroic, nor particularly proud of what he did, the consequences of Thompson’s naïve, idealistic attempt to stop the carnage are pieced together in an effort to seek closure and resolution.”

Kronos Quartet has a long-standing relationship with Hancher spanning four decades. According to an email from Hancher’s Director of Marketing and Communications Rob Cline, “Kronos is one of the most respected and innovative ensembles in the world, and we’ve been proud to present them many times in past — including a lengthy stretch during which the quartet came to Hancher each season.”

The decision to host My Lai at Hancher was made before Paul Brohan became the Hancher’s new programming director on Dec. 1. However, Brohan told Little Village that he has been aware of My Lai for a while and said it was a valuable contribution to the auditorium’s repertoire.

“It explores the issue of the Vietnam War in a sweeping approach to that period,” Brohan said, “and tells the story through the lens of an individual.”

My Lai has been performed in numerous cities, including on the college campuses of Stanford and Berkeley (which has a unique place in the saga of anti-war rebellion in the ’60s and ’70s), where audience members who were not alive during this tumultuous period could draw on lessons of the past to prevent such tragic occurrences from being repeated in the future. Wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq and military escalation against Iran, North Korea and Syria reveal that little has been learned from past tragedies on the battlefield and their horrific consequences.

In 1971, Colonel Oran K. Henderson made the chilling observation: “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden some place.” This unsettling statement has been vindicated over the years as more massacres and crimes involving America’s numerous wars have been brought to light, allowing its citizens to examine their own conscience when reacting to such revelations.

Members of the Kronos Quartet performing ‘My Lai.’ — video still

In recent memory, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the American occupation of Iraq in 2004 was, coincidentally, first reported by Hersh for the New Yorker. The series of photographs revealing physical and psychological abuses against Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers created similar shockwaves as the infamous 1972 photo of a 9-year-old girl Vietnamese burned by napalm (dropped on her village by US forces) running down a street. The shift in public opinion regarding the legitimacy of these wars is courtesy of the efforts of people like Thompson.

Brohan said, “One of the reasons I think [the show My Lai] is so powerful is, sadly, the issues of warfare and human suffering has not changed since the Vietnam War.”

To coincide with Hancher’s production, Combat Paper will present workshops and engagement activities on the March 19 and 20, leading up to the performance of My Lai on the March 21. Combat Paper was founded in 2007 by Drew Cameron and Drew Matott as an outlet for “artistically addressing the catharsis of veterans and survivors of war,” Brohan said. The organization turns military uniforms into paper.

Combat Paper’s co-founder Cameron is a hand papermaker with connections to Iowa City. He enlisted in the Army after high school in 2000, serving until 2006. With four years in active duty as a Field Artillery Soldier, he served in Iraq during the war in 2003 and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant (E-5). He also served in the Vermont National Guard from 2004 to 2006.

According to the group’s website, “We believe in this simple yet enduring premise that the plant fiber in rags can be transformed into paper. A uniform worn through military service carries with it stories and experiences that are deeply imbued in the woven threads. Creating paper and artwork from these fibers carries these same qualities.”

The details of the workshops are still being finalized; Little Village will have more on these.

Hancher originally opened on the University of Iowa campus in 1972. The new facility opened in 2016, following the floods of 2008.

“Over the years, we’ve presented a host of artists and performances that have addressed social and political issues,” Cline said. “We believe the arts can provide space for the examination of pressing matters and reflections on our collective history.”

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