Paul Leaf’s Mutiny at Port Chicago, a world premiere play at the Ruskin Group Theatre, is a compelling story based on a little-known military disaster that took place in 1944 in San Francisco’s East Bay. The drama is a haunting accounting of the events leading up to the explosion aboard a naval ship, killing 330 people, injuring 400, and destroying everything within a one-made radius.
Based on Navy records said to be given to Leaf by the then Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ron Dellums, Leaf, who also directed, constructed a powerful drama centering on the trial of 50 black sailors who had warned senior officers of the impending danger of overloading the ship with live ammunition. These same men were assigned the duty of clean up which included trying to identify scattered body parts of their fallen comrades. After discussions amongst themselves, the men agreed that another explosion was likely and refused to resume loading the munitions, resulting in being accused of mutiny.
The lead character is Seaman Edward Little intensely played by J. Teddy Garces, an actor with a strong theatrical presence. Little is the squad leader and serves as narrator throughout the play, giving a heart rending blow-by-blow description of what the men are going through emotionally, and the looming consequences.
Act I takes us through the events leading up to the deadly explosion and Act II is the trial which is presided over by Admiral Wright, (Carol Coughlan) a clearly racist officer who refers to the defense attorney Lt. Gerald Veltman, beautifully played by Maury Sterling, as “An uppity Jew lover.” Veltman must try this case in a very prejudicial courtroom and we watch his struggle with attempts to get the truth heard. The heartfelt, honest testimony given by Long John played by Eric Bivens-Bush, is one of the highlights of this Mickey Mouse trial. In a private moment with his fellow seamen, Long John feels hopeless saying, “We’re just niggers on a plantation.”
The balance of the ensemble include Cris D’Annunzio as prosecutor Lt. Cdr. James Coakley, Paul Denk as Commander John Leslie, Josh Drennen as Lt. Fontana, and David Dunham as Lt. Dimatto, the white officers who ignore pleas about the unsafe conditions. Also in the cast are Durant Fowler and Pedro Coiscou giving creditable performances as Seamen Summerville and Sylvester, respectively.
The story, besides addressing the issue of racial discrimination, grapples with what constitutes mutiny versus refusal to do a specific job because of dangerous, unsafe conditions. This was a historic trial with the outcome yet another blemish in American history.
The production was nicely supported by a creative set design by Christina Silvoso who maximized use of the space, and appropriate lighting by Rachel Fishman.
Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Road, Santa Monica, CA 90405, Fri. & Sat. 8:00 pm, Sun. 2:00 pm, Runs through August 15, Tickets: $20, 310.397.3244