Focusing on a tumultuous era in our history, the UW–Madison Department of Theatre and Drama’s upcoming production of “A Piece of My Heart” presents a potent message on the human cost of war and the scars that still remain.
Written by UW–Madison alumna Shirley Lauro and directed by Professor Baron Kelly, the play shares the true stories of six courageous women sent to Vietnam and their struggle to make sense of a war that irrevocably changed them and a nation that shunned them. These women — who worked as nurses, Red Cross volunteers, intelligence officers, and in other roles — were among approximately 11,000 who served during the war, their stories largely untold.
“A Piece of My Heart” is playing March 3-11 in Vilas Hall’s Gilbert V. Helmsley Theatre.
Lauro, a Guggenheim Fellow and acclaimed playwright, was excited to learn that her work was going to be performed on campus, a place she still remembers fondly.
“Madison, for me, was a place where a lot of the things I wanted to do in my life solidified,” says Lauro, who earned her master’s degree in theatre from UW–Madison in 1957.
“It’s where I tried out my wings,” she adds, as a college instructor, actor, and writer.
Based on a book of the same title by Keith Walker, “A Piece of My Heart” is one of Lauro’s best-known works and is among Samuel French Play Publishers’ top produced plays with over 2,000 productions worldwide.
“The play has become a paradigm for war,” Lauro says, when asked why she thinks it has stood the test of time. “It talks about wars, and it talks about the unsung heroines who fight those wars.”
“And just comparing it for a moment to what’s going on with the coronavirus — the unsung heroines of our current war are also the women,” she adds.
A goal to ‘transform,’ not simply perform
“I’ve never been interested in doing the nice little college production down the street,” says Kelly, a faculty member with the Department of Theatre and Drama who is directing “A Piece of My Heart.”
Kelly has high expectations of the students who are acting in the show. He wants them to fully transform into the characters, not simply perform their parts.
“Since day one, he’s been super clear about what he wants, and we’ve been on the go since the start of it,” says Allison Hesselberg, a senior double majoring in theatre and Chinese, who is playing the character Whitney. “It’s been a very meticulous rehearsal process — something that I haven’t experienced before.”
“He sees something in us that I guess we don’t really see in ourselves,” adds Jordynn Ennis, a sophomore zoology major who plays the character Steele. “He pushes us a lot to do more than we think we can do, and to get us to push those boundaries and try to get into our characters as much as we possibly can.”
To help the actors connect with their characters, Kelly has asked them to do research on the Vietnam War era. All of the actors have read Keith Walker’s book that the play was based on. They have also been encouraged to watch movies and videos and read other books about the war to learn about the experiences of those who served there.
“I feel it’s been super helpful in developing character, helping me get closer to the script,” says Hesselberg.
Her character, Whitney, is a wealthy woman from Boston who went to Vietnam as a “Donut Dolly.”
“They were there to give the American soldiers a ‘face from home,’ ” says Hesselberg. “They were volunteers and a source of emotional comfort for the men. They would serve snacks and drinks (donuts, Kool-aid, coffee, etc.), and they would entertain the men with games, quizzes, conversations. They went there to serve as a source of moral support and exemplify the ‘all around American girl.’ ”
Ennis describes her character, Steele, as an intelligence officer from down South with “a very bold, stong head on her shoulder.”
“She knows what she wants, and she knows how she’s going to get what she wants,” says Ellis. “She takes her job very, very seriously. And so for her to also be a Black woman in the military, it’s kind of like, for her, I’ve got to work so much harder and I need to achieve these goals, because it’s going to be a lot harder for me otherwise.”
For Ennis, playing Steele has required her to push past her comfort zone.
“I’m very nice, and very sweet,” says Ennis.
Speaking of Kelly’s direction, she says, “He picks up on that and he’s like, ‘You’re very nice, and I need you to be a little bit harder.’ He is always reminding us that that is some real stuff that people went through, and you have to be able to find a way to resonate with that.”
“The play has a lot to show about the tenacity of these women,” Hesselberg says. “I feel like there’s still cloudy emotions on how people feel about the Vietnam War, especially for those in a younger generation. I think for someone who never grew up with that experience (of the war) … this is a good play to see that history. And also showing that there’s the women’s side, too, because there were thousands of women who went over.”
Tickets for “A Piece of My Heart” are available via Campus Arts Ticketing by calling 608-265-2787 or at artsticketing.wisc.edu.