Some of their discussion is about the disrespectful way they’re being treated by white civilians in Houston, TX, where they are bivouacked. They speak openly about how they mistakenly had the idea that joining the military would gain them a level of respect not afforded a colored civilian. They also talk about the daily battles they have to endure to maintain a modicum of dignity. Little did they know that on Aug. 23, 1917, they would become entrenched in a violent race riot that would result in the death of four soldiers and 16 civilians. There would be three courts-martial, 19 soldiers would be executed and another 41 would be given life sentences for their participation.
This is only a rehearsal, but this true, historic moment about the proud and brave men of the 24th and what came to be called the Houston riots or Camp Logan riots, is vividly told in Celeste Bedford Walker’s drama, “Camp Logan,” now playing at LATC.
The show, presented as a reading last May in Theatre 2 of LATC, is presented by Robey Theatre Company (Ben Guillory), Sparkling City Entertainment (Alex Morris and Vanessa Paul) and JuVee Productions (Academy Award-nominated actress Viola Davis [The Help] and husband Julius Tennon) in association with Latino Theater Company.
As the story goes, it’s 1917 in Houston, Texas. A couple of white police officers reportedly drag a colored woman from her home and begin beating her in front of her five children. When a colored soldier tries to intervene, he, too, is beaten. When he returns to his base to relay the incident, about 154 soldiers from the 24th United States Infantry marched from their bivouac at the construction site of Camp Logan to the west end of Houston. There, they were met by Houston police, other military units and armed citizens. But, it was more than just that one incident that set off the soldiers.
Things had come to a head after this all-colored regiment had endured weeks of harassment from the city police and white civilians. The fire was fueled when a sergeant and his men learned that the regiment would not be sent to France. There are varying accounts regarding how many soldiers were involved, beaten, sentenced, etc. The story of Camp Logan is not widely known, however, it goes without saying that what happened is a dark moment in American history.
“I did not know the story of Camp Logan and am not at all surprised that I did not,” says Viola Davis, who is currently in New Orleans working on a movie. “History is so vast and has been reinterpreted and filtered to such a degree that there are some stories you just shrug off....or never pursue. I think any story involving African Americans and the expansiveness of our history should be told. It reminds us of the cost of the freedoms we enjoy today and also reminds us about the importance and repercussions of insurrection. This is American history.”
MORRIS GETS DIRECT
As the performers go through their paces, like a proud father, the show’s director, Alex Morris (All My Sons), arms folded and eyes focused, moves effortlessly around the rehearsal hall as his actors Sammie Wayne IV, Dwain A. Perry, Dorian C. Baucum, Bill Lee Brown, Kaylon Hunt (making his LA stage debut), Jacob Sidney, and Curtis Lee Stansberry, bring the show to life. Sidney, who plays Captain Zuelke, is the only cast member who did not participate in last year’s reading.
Occasionally Morris, who is also an actor, nods approval. Adding atmosphere at various points in the show he lends his voice to that of a white, boisterous, raucous crowd spewing racially charged slurs.
“Good, that was good,” says Morris at the end of Act 1. “Take 10. That was good.”
An admitted theater fanatic, at one time Morris was simultaneously appearing in All My Sons at the Matrix, while rehearsing for No Chance In Hell at Theatre Theater and directing Camp Logan. He has a long relationship with Camp Logan and the playwright.
In 1988 Morris, who is from the Houston area, appeared in the original production of Camp Logan.
“We toured it on military bases,” says Morris, who played a character named Franciscus. “Sometimes we would do the show at 9 a.m. Do you know how hard it is to get young men up that time of morning to do a show?”
The last time he actually performed in Camp Logan was 1991. However, since that time Morris has wanted to mount his own production.
“When I first met Alex, all he did was talk about this play,” says Morris’s wife, Vanessa Paul, an actress and publicist who is also one of the producers. “He was excited about the soldiers and how wonderful they were. For him it was about the story. I have to admit, even though I’m from the area, I didn’t know anything about the story. But, since I’ve gotten wind of it, I’ve been blown away. I can’t believe there are men who endured what they endured, but still wanted to fight for their country.”
“I’ve always loved the play and what it says,” says Morris. “For me, it’s about the message. It’s an extraordinary play that’s written by a woman, but sounds like a man. It tells me that Black women are listening to us and what we’re saying.”
WALKER DOES WRITE
Morris says he’s not the only one to be surprised at how successful the playwright is in writing for men. The rhythm of the way men speak, the camaraderie, frankness and cadence of a group of guys bonding in the military is finely crafted and captured by Celeste Bedford Walker, who is now a married (James) 64-year-old mother (Dana, 39 and James, 36) and grandmother (Brandon, 16 and Brea, 16), who still loves to write.
“In order to capture the true essence of men, I observed them,” says Walker, who is from Houston. “I didn’t want the show to sound like a woman trying to write for men. I wanted it to sound authentically like men. That’s another reason it took so long to write the play. I kept trying to bring a female into the play so I could see the men through a female’s eyes. Literally the male characters kept throwing the female out of the play. I just observed the men in my life and how they acted and interacted and expressed emotion and how they didn’t express emotion. After the play was produced I was gratified to see the audience accepted my interpretation.”
CELESTE BEDFORD WALKER
Having written about 30 plays in her career, including her first, Once In A Wife Time, Reunion in Bartersville and the musical, Over Forty, Walker, who finished writing Camp Logan in 1985, says the show, by far, is one of her most popular.
“I wrote Camp Logan because of the story,” says Walker, who wrote the play over a two-three year period when she was in her late 30s. “It has a Shakespearean aspect to it that captured me. I heard about it growing up as a child. The elders would talk about it from time to time. They would say, ‘Remember Camp Logan. We don’t want this to be a Camp Logan.’ I thought about the story and what a great theatrical piece this would be. I wanted to understand it and bring it to life.”
For years Walker did her research, which included talking to elders who lived during the time of the race riot.
“I did a lot of research,” she says. “A lot of it was oral. I had neighbors, elders, who lived during that time. They had a lot to say. At Texas Southern University they have a whole wing of Black Houston history. I also requested records from Congress, but during that time the records were sealed. They are available now, but not when I was doing the research.”
Camp Logan (which won a NAACP Image Award for best play in 1994), was first produced in 1987, by the Kuumba House Theatre. The show, according to Walker, ran for six weeks.
“We didn’t do anything else until I got a grant from the Carver Center in 1990 in San Antonio,” she says. “They gave me a grant and the play has been touring ever since.
I’m sure its been done more than 300 times at various military bases, theaters, colleges, universities, commercial venues and the Kennedy Center. It’s been well received.”
This incarnation of Camp Logan reunites Walker and Morris, who toured with the show along with Curtis Lee Stansberry, who plays the by-the-book Sgt. McKinney. Walker thinks it’s appropriate that Morris is now directing.
“It’s like coming full circle,” says Walker from her home in Houston. “Alex was one of the original actors in the play. When we put together the Carver Center production in 1990, he played Franciscus. He was in the play in the beginning. He toured with it for years. The play has always been close to his heart. He always wanted to do it in LA. I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”
The soldiers depicted in Camp Logan are just a sampling of the actual regiment. Walker says each character is a composite. The gruff, opinionated character, Joseph Moses, is actually patterned after her father.
“Joe Moses is modeled after my dad,” she says. “He had a temper. He said what he felt when he felt it. The others grew out of the stories I heard over the years. These guys are composites of characters. Some of them reminded me of men I knew. I put in a little bit of this one and a little bit of that one. I had to have different characters to express different viewpoints.”
A SOLDIER’S STORY
Actor Sammie Wayne IV, who participated in the reading of Camp Logan last spring, is back for this production as Gweely Brown, an army veteran and self-proclaimed ladies man, who is quick to rebel.
Wayne, who won an NAACP Theatre award in 2011 for best lighting design for Loretta Devine’s one woman show, Pieces of Me and also won a NAACP Theater award in 2010 for best supporting male actor for his role in Alretha Thomas’s, One Woman Two Lives, says from the moment he read the play, he wanted to be a part of it.
SAMMIE WAYNE IV
“After I read the script, it did something to me,” says Wayne, who has acted in more than 50 plays since moving to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1987. “It made me want to be part of the show. I think it chose me, I didn’t choose it. I was unaware of the story, which made me feel like I was lacking in my knowledge of our history. It’s also an inspiring story. The more I read about what these soldiers and blacks in general went through, it made the problems I have today seem not so big. This story makes me think I can overcome.”
Wayne said it was a “pleasant surprise” to find out the show was written by a woman.
“She captured the male camaraderie in a way that a lot of black male playwrights couldn’t,” says Wayne. “The lines organically come out of each of us. Alex’s casting speaks to that. The guys he casted are these roles. Alex is great as a director because he comes to it from the point of view as an actor. He knows what we’re going through. His process of putting us through military drills and started early enough for all of us to get to know each other and have an authentic camaraderie has made this one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had.”
For the first time the Robey Theatre Company, Sparkling City Entertainment and the JuVee Productions have come together to produce a show. All of the participants were quick to point out that Camp Logan was an important story to tell.
It was Morris who first presented the show to the rest of the group.
“Ben (Guillory) and I have done five productions together,” says Morris. “Julius (Tennon) and I go back 30 years. We were in the first movie I did called, Riverbend. We both wanted to do stuff that told the true message, a positive message. The Robey mantra was also to tell our stories. I was excited to give this story to Ben. Julius was like, ‘This is what we (he and Davis) wanted to do.’ So did Ben. So did me and Vanessa.”
“This will be the sixth production Alex and I have collaborated on,” says Guillory. “It’s the perfect fit for what Robey is about. It has a social consciousness; it’s historical and theatrical because of Walker’s talent as a playwright. One of the performances opening weekend is really to honor Celeste and to give our audience a chance to meet her. She’s written a wonderful play, an important play about how the Buffalo Soldiers, now the 24th and what they had to go through to fight for this country in WW1 and how they had to fight a battle here to get to there.”
He has nothing but good thing to say about Julius Tennon and Viola Davis’ inclusion.
“Viola’s body of work speaks for itself,” says Guillory, whose credits include theater, television and film. “Julius is an old friend. Alex, Julius and myself did Piano Lesson together. We’re colleagues and friends. We’ve been wanting to do something together. It’s a perfect fit. There is strength in our numbers. Even more than that we have a great deal of respect for each other as artists and as men and women and as black men and women wanting to do a kind of work that is of a high standard. We trust each other to support those ideologies in the work. Some would call it a blind faith. It’s a no brainer in the sense that we are real aware of the standards we hold each other to – that are just implied. As artists of color we simply wanted and needed to do this.”
Tennon is equally enthusiastic about producing the show. He was originally supposed to play Sgt. McKinney in the show, but had to bow out due to his hectic schedule. However, he says Camp Logan is just the kind of project he and Davis want to produce.
“This is part of what we’ve being working toward for the last three years,” says Tennon, who added JuVee Productions is currently developing a number of projects, including I’m Your Man, a romantic comedy for Viola. “We wanted to control more of our careers and do the type of work that we want to do. To do that, we had to be producers. We had to find scripts. This way, Viola wouldn’t have to wait for stereotypical roles. We want to do a lot of culturally diverse things.”
Morris said working with JuVee (a combination of Julius and Viola’s names) and Robey was like a perfect storm. Tennon, whose JuVee Productions is committed to excellence in film, television, and theatre, agreed.
“Alex and I and Ben and I have been friends for a long time,” says Tennon. “We’ve wanted to get together to do something for a long time. I was familiar with the story. I lived in Austin in the 90s. The story blew me away. So many times we don’t get to know this history. But Alex has a passion in his heart for this story. We talked about doing this for a lot of years. Now it’s here.”
Tennon has nothing but praise for his friend as the director.
“He’s a wonderful director because he’s also an actor,” says Tennon. “He understands what actors need to do. He’s great for this. The guys in the show are all on the same page. There have commitment and they’re working hard. This story is a testament to the tenacity and will of these soldiers in spite of all that prejudice. They still stood up for what was right. It takes a lot of courage to do that. We all really want to do justice to this. This is a significant story. This is an important story.”
For Walker, writing and telling the story of what happened at Camp Logan has been her mission in life.
“This is an important story to tell,” says Walker, who is working on a new played about cowboys called Black Spurs, as well as a documentary called, I, Barbara Jordan. “To me it was important because, it might sound trite, but if we don’t know our history we’re doomed to repeat it. We need to know our history.”
Camp Logan opens April 28; Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013; Thur.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. at 3 pm; Through May 27; Tickets: $20-$30; 866-811-4111 or www.thelatc.org.
This story, originally written by Darlene Donloe, is reprinted with the permission of LA Stage Times (www.lastagetimes.com)