En Garde Arts Presents Uncommon Voices

S1 E11 | FULL EPISODE

SOLDIERGIRLS

Hear conversations with writer and director Em Weinstein on their new work “SOLIDERGIRLS” about queer women in the army during WWII.

AIRED: August 12, 2020 | 0:13:23
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TRANSCRIPT

Part of why I am really passionate

about telling queer histories

is because these conversations have been happening

since the beginning of time

and I want to place old stories in new contexts

so that people understand

that that these aren't a blip on the radar,

these conversations around gender

and identity and sexuality,

that they have always been in the discourse.

They just not have not been on the surface of it.

So that's really important to me as an artist and as a mission.

[ Up-tempo music plays ]

Part of why I am really passionate

I'm Em Weinstein, and I'm the playwright and director

of a new play called "Soldier Girls,"

which I like to say is a lesbian musical sex comedy.

Woman: She's the redhead with the...

Big glasses? ...big boobs. Yeah. Um...

Anyway...

I've been directing and writing plays

since I was 10 years old.

My mom is an experimental theater artist/teacher.

And started directing after I had brain surgery, actually,

when I was 10 years old,

I was in a wheelchair for a few months,

recovering from having a brain tumor.

And I started writing plays

and have sort of been creating theater ever since.

I went to Smith College,

where I got to direct on a really large scale very young,

and then started directing professionally

right after college.

And I finally ended up doing my MFA at Yale School of Drama.

I graduated last year with a degree in directing.

And while I was there, I started making films,

and I started writing

and I started getting really interested in original musicals

and how we can take the American musical,

which is, frankly, one of the greatest things

this country has ever come up with, in my opinion,

and bring it into the 21st century

to be something that's really fun and sexy

and queer and young.

So that's sort of where "Soldier Girls" came out of.

[ Mid-tempo music playing ]

♪ Touch her thighs and kiss her neck ♪

♪ And be sure to double-check ♪

♪ She's not an actress or a Gemini ♪

♪ An alcoholic private eye ♪

♪ On recon for the Germans ♪

♪ Or an heiress dressed in ermine ♪

♪ Or a lying sack of vermin ♪

♪ Like my ex, Augusta Herrmann ♪

♪ Yes, I'll make sure to determine ♪

♪ Baby, I could write a sermon ♪

What if I don't like it?

Then make it stop.

What if you don't like it?

I like it. [ Laughter ]

But what if you don't?

It's an experiment.

I failed chemistry in the 10th grade.

I was good at chemistry.

Will I need gloves?

Weinstein: Women's Army Corps,

which was founded in World War II

for the purpose of women getting involved in the war effort,

ended up being a pivotal moment for queer liberation

and for women's liberation

and in lesbian history just generally.

Gentlemen of the Senate, manhood is under attack.

What has become of us men

when we have to call on our women to protect us?

Gentlemen of the Senate,

my name is Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby.

I'm a wife. I'm a mother.

I'm a mother and a wife.

I'm a colonel in the United States Army --

the only female colonel, in fact.

"Colonel" is spelled C-O-L-O-N-E-L.

It doesn't have an "R" in it. I'm aware of that.

Is it advisable,

long before the supply of manpower is running short,

to put a lot of young, vigorous girls

into a vaguely defined noncombatant branch of the Army?

Wouldn't it be wiser to encourage them to marry,

produce children?

Why not put these girls to use?

Many even have college degrees.

Some even speak a foreign language.

Why not, I say! What of the masculine environment of the Army?

Do we not fear that the disease of tomboyishness

will spread amongst them?

It is well known that enlisted men despise office work.

They long to march into battle, to drive tanks,

fly airplanes, to drop bombs,

built trenches, shoot machine guns,

pull out the throbbing viscera of the enemy

with their virile young fingers.

How many of our boys could be free from the drudgery

of paperwork and transcription

if we put girls into our war offices

to operate our radios and answer our telephones?

Women aren't made for war.

Girls love telephones, gentlemen.

Gentlemen, everybody knows that. Everybody knows that.

I'm a huge nerd for 1930s and 1940s musicals.

I always have been.

I sort of was raised on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I should say the '50s, too.

I love Gene Kelly and Gershwin and Cole Porter.

And I think that, you know, for so long

we have described those musicals in relation to queer history

in terms of gay men especially.

I mean, they've sort of gotten to own the whole genre

in terms of queer musical.

But for me, as an assigned- female-at-birth queer person,

these musicals meant a lot.

And in some way, I always saw gender

as being played with in these musicals.

And so I always have wanted to add to that canon,

even though it's, you know, decades and decades later.

And when I started working on a show

that took place in the 1940s, I was like, "Oh, my God.

It needs to involve that music."

I started working with Emily Johnson-Erday,

who's the composer on "Soldier Girls,"

and she has a super-unique background.

She's done folk and bluegrass music and jazz.

And so what you'll hear in this musical

is a whole bunch of different music samples

from across many genres.

There's an Ani DiFranco-inspired number.

There's a riot grrrl-inspired number.

♪ Lost in the limbo [ Mid-tempo rock music playing ]

♪ In the first flesh of you ♪

♪ But an echo remains

♪ Of trust untold

♪ Yeah

Part of why I am really passionate

♪ God's in His heaven

♪ And I'm in my hell

♪ I shall only hope

♪ That you are well

[ Groans ] [ Laughter ]

[ Cheers and applause ]

Something that I found really, really satisfying

was the chance to take someone's journals

and put them to music.

The two lesbian breakup songs toward the middle of the show

are both directly from Marvyl's diary

after Esther and Marvyl's breakup.

And there is something so sacred about taking a text

that someone never intended to share --

it's in her private journal,

and it's her, like, most terrible moments --

and just taking that intimate, vulnerable piece of text

and giving it everything that I possibly can.

♪ So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag ♪

♪ And smile, smile, smile

Part of why I am really passionate

My dramaturge, Rebecca, and I

found this amazing archive housed at USC

called the ONE Archive,

which is this incredible treasure trove of queer history.

And through that archive and a trip to L.A.,

we discovered the incredible letters of female soldiers

during World War II, these very erotic love letters

between a number of soldiers in the Women's Army Corps.

And from those letters, a story emerged

of this beautiful, sexy, and sort of forbidden love story

between these two female soldiers.

Rebecca and I and two actors

went to Adelphi University with New York Theatre Workshop

and spent five days just, like, playing with things.

We laid out all of the letters,

and we had a table full of books.

And by the end of that five days,

I realized a few things --

one, that I wanted it to be a musical,

two, that I wanted it to just be two people,

and three, that I wanted it to really traverse genres.

Eleanor Roosevelt and others fought

for the Women's Army Corps to exist.

And unlike the male army, homosexuality wasn't something

that was talked about from the start.

So whereas in the Army proper,

there were all these ways that homosexual men

were screened out and persecuted,

they were so oblivious to the idea

that women could desire each other

that for a very long time, there was no screening process.

By the time women started to meet and fall in love

and the Army started to wake up to the fact that they had

what they called a "lesbian menace" at their hands,

they had to strike out.

And they ended up doing so by targeting especially butch women

and by using pretty harmful tactics

to dishonorably discharge those soldiers.

In my entrance interview, they ask if I'm a homosexual.

I've never heard that word before -- not out loud.

Anyway, there's a tingling sensation

on the third syllable -- sex...ual.

I say no.

I'm not lying.

I've never done anything that would categorize me as...

But of course, there were those times long ago at night,

laying on top of my pillow,

rubbing back and forth, thinking about...

But I haven't done that in a while,

and there's no way she could know, this serious officer

who asks me, so matter-of-fact, about...that.

It's really fascinating, because for a moment,

these communities were fostered in the barracks

of the Women's Army Corps

that then led to movements after the war.

So it led to bars being created in these communities,

sort of sprouting up and finding each other again,

because for the first time,

queer women could find each other in these single-sex spaces

and organize and plan

and fall in love and meet each other.

♪ I like the Army

♪ 'Cause it's full of pretty girls ♪

♪ And my mother isn't here, and I'm not in West Virginia ♪

♪ And the world is larger than it's ever been before ♪

♪ Now with pants instead of pantyhose ♪

♪ I'll fix a million radios ♪

♪ From Tokyo to Amsterdam, Paula Jean to Marianne ♪

♪ Now in neckties 'stead of pearls ♪

♪ Some in pigtails, some in curls ♪

♪ Oh, yes, I like the Army ♪

♪ 'Cause it's full of pretty ♪

♪ Full of pretty girls ♪ I like the Army

♪ 'Cause it's clear and it's determined ♪

♪ And my father isn't here ♪

♪ and I'm not in Flatbush, Brooklyn ♪

♪ And the world is larger than it's ever been before ♪

Weinstein: You know, when I started working on the piece,

I struggled with this question of relevance.

World War II is a very well-worn subject matter

onstage and on-screen.

And so I was really wondering, you know, why add to that canon?

And I realized, you know, so much about the Army

and who makes up the Army today

and who made up the Army back then

is not in our public discourse.

But so much has changed

and so little has changed in our military.

And I wanted to dive deep into understanding

how women first were welcomed into the Army

and then what the history of their participation

in the U.S. military has been till now,

because it's a story that bears telling

and that needs to be told and retold.

[ Up-tempo music plays ]

Part of why I am really passionate

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