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War Stories

by Erin Pihlaja on May 8, 2013


When Brianna Carter, age 17, first met the nine female veterans whose stories are the heart of the play, On Her Shoulders, she was surprised. She had expected, as she describes, the “G.I. Jane” type—the stereotypical masculine-leaning, war-trained soldier of Hollywood films. Instead, she discovered the opposite.

Ejaniia Clayton, age 16, had a similar experience. “I had the broad idea of a tough manly woman,” she says. “But one of the women told us how she baked cookies for the troops during combat.” Clayton says she learned of another side of woman at war—one that was nurturing, even during battle.

Director Gentile and members of her cast, photographed by Erin Pihlaja

Both Carter and Clayton are a part of a cast of eight women, seven who are still in high school, who will act out the stories of the veterans on stage. The actors were also a part of collecting the personal, intimate moments of the local soldiers. The tales encompass the women’s lives before heading off for duty, while they were enlisted, and when they returned home to readjust to civilian life.

“It was kind of scary at first, you don’t know the right questions to ask,” says Rozara Sanders, age 14, of the interview process. “It really is an honor to be shown what these women go through. You have to dig deep to uncover this information.”

The performance intersperses video footage and photographs of the veterans throughout the monologues, as well as projected images, designed by local artist Gaetano Vaccaro, that support the narrative.

Some of the stories are intense. Writer Amelia Whalen was responsible for collecting the interviews and writings from the veterans themselves, and weaving them together for the final piece. Whalen, the only cast member not in high school, portrays a rape scene in the work.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” she says. “I am beside myself that I can share her being able to touch us with her story. These women are incredibly strong and brave.”

One of the other actors heard a veteran speak of being sexually harassed by her fellow soldiers. “I have my own experience with that,” she says. “It was a little therapeutic—to know that she hid it, to know that you would have to hide that from so many people—it was a relief to hear someone else say that.”

“This is really taking the work of the Workforce Development Institute [who is funding the production] to another level,” says director Noelle Gentile.  “Watching the piece transform has been a humbling experience. It’s been empowering for everyone, and there’s been a real connection between the girls and the veterans. I get a sense that the women feel thankful to have a platform to raise awareness of their lives when they returned home.”

“It’s so amazing and will take people by surprise,” says Sanders. “They aren’t going to know what to expect.”

Carter adds, “I hope the audience has some tissues.”

On Her Shoulders will be performed at the Steamer No. 10 Theater (500 Western Ave., Albany) on Saturday (May 11) at 2 and 8 PM. The tickets are free for veterans; there’s a suggested donation of $10 for the general public. Call 272-3500 for reservations.