The South Dallas Cultural Center is presenting Speed Killed My Cousin this weekend. In the play, Debra is a young African American soldier returning from Iraq. As she drives the Long Island Expressway with her father David, a Vietnam veteran, Debra struggles with whether to live or die. The piece was written by Linda Parris-Bailey, executive director of The Carpetbag Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. And it tackles a host of issues, including post traumatic stress, its impact on families, the family’s role in healing and military sexual assault.
- Speed Killed My Cousin starts Thursday at South Dallas Cultural Center and runs through Nov. 1. Veterans get free admission and their families, half-price.
- Listen to the interview with Parris-Bailey that aired on KERA FM:
Carpetbag Theatre has performed this drama in other communities and works with community partners, including veterans’ groups. There are talkbacks after the show, and professionals on site to provide resources and referrals if audience members require them. In Dallas, Carpetbag and the South Dallas Cultural Center are working with Veterans Resource Center, The Urban League of Greater Dallas and North Texas Veterans Program, The Martin Luther King Center’s veterans program, Veterans Hospital and Texas Veteran’s Commission to invite vets and their families to the show.
In Tampa, Carpetbag worked with University of Southern Florida, veterans groups, psychologists, sociologists and others to hold workshops before the performances. That made Parris-Bailey doubly nervous about the audience reaction to the performance. “I have to tell you, I was a little fearful…. As a playwright, you’re concerned that you get it right.”
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, she says. “The feedback was ‘Yes, that reflects my experience, I know these people.'”
The worse she got? “She’s wearing the wrong boots, and they’re tied wrong,” Parris-Bailey says, with a relieved laugh. “I can live with that.”
There was one segment of the audience that surprised her. “I didn’t really take into account that many of the 30-somethings were children of Vietnam vets.”
These folks related to the play in a way she hadn’t expected. “They were the children of parents who slept with a machete under his pillow or a gun under the sink. So they had this experience.”
Carpetbag was founded in Knoxville in 1969, and has a long tradition of blending performance with activism around social justice and social change. “We don’t see the art and the activism as separated, or diametrically opposed to each other,” she says. “We see it as part of the creative process. We link those two things.”
“I think that we do establish our own aesthetic, a different aesthetic that comes from the community. That’s part of the tradition of Black theater. If you look at the history of Black theater… it has been engaged in a discussion about changing the world. In various ways – through humor, through music. There’s always a theme about making this a better world. And seeking out justice. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If you look back to the great European playwrights, a lot of them are talking about justice.”
More excerpts from our conversation:
On the inspiration for the play: I was inspired by a long-term interest in the whole process of healing from trauma. I am of the Vietnam generation and remember very,very clearly the impact of trauma from Vietnam. I have a dozen or so cousins who all served in Vietnam. The story specifically was inspired by the death of my cousin. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. His name was Vernon. I believe I was 12 or 13. He died from a head on collision with a wall in North Carolina. From the day I heard about how he died, I suspected that it wasn’t an accident. The character Lynell is definitely fashioned after my cousin.
On why David would encourage a career in the military, despite his experience: In our community, there are two things that are thought of as a way out of poverty, as a way of making progress. One is education. And the other source has been the military We know that throughout the history of black people in the military, there has been injustice. But we continue to see it as a viable option to finding employment, to supporting oneself and one’s family. Many of the women we spoke with joined the military to support their kids. I think that’s a story that doesn’t get told. And that’s a different kind of sacrifice.
On the difference between father-son soldiers and father-daughter: I think those lines are beginning to be a little bit blurred. For instance, for David’s character, his thinking about the military is based on his experience in Vietnam. Not the experiences of soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. So the idea that he thought as a woman, [Debra] would be protected if you will, is no longer a valid idea. Women are serving in a very different function. I was pretty floored to hear that women in Vietnam, they weren’t even given weapons. So it was a whole different institution.
On the battlefield, Debra is not just fearful of the enemy; she’s worried about her colleagues: The incidences of military assault, sexual assault on women. The numbers are astounding. I think we couldn’t tell this story without dealing with that as an issue, because it is a major issue. We had to talk about it as a theme in the piece. Our organization, the Carpetbag Theater, is committed to revealing hidden stories. Again, when we started working on this piece these were not stories that were commonly told.