Jane remembered working on the secret project to create the atomic bomb.
George remembered the first time he saw a man killed.
John remembered bailing out of his plane and being so grateful that his parachute worked that he burst into song even though he was floating into enemy territory.
Those are just some of the World War II memories gathered from members of the GI generation who live in the Episcopal Homes in St. Paul. Now in their late 90s or older, they are among the last survivors of World War II.
Those memories will be shared in a multigenerational, multimedia play this weekend.
The play, created by director Joey Clark and produced by Hero Now Theatre, will feature the stories of those who experienced World War II, acted by younger Episcopal Homes residents who may not have lived through the war, but were raised in its shadow. Young adult dancers and teenage musicians (students or alumni of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, the high school where Clark chairs the musical theater department) will also take part.
“I wanted people of different perspectives and different generations,” said Clark, who has led choruses at senior residences through the MacPhail Center’s Music for Life program. “I just find there’s a lot of power in having people of different generations in the same room at the same time.”
Or, as Zoe Wagner, an 11-year-old cast member, put it: “It’s fun to be with older adults and learn about World War II.”
The play, “Holding On: Unexpected Stories of World War II,” tells stories that range from funny to heartbreaking, touching on experiences of the prewar Depression, segregation in the armed forces, women in the workforce, Japanese-American internments, wartime romances and the beginning of the Atomic Age.
The actors perform songs from that era ranging from the familiar (“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”) to the obscure (“We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line”).
Collected from the people who were there, these stories are on the verge of being lost forever.
Of the 11 veterans depicted in the play, three have died since work on the project began about two years ago.
“It’s intriguing to tell these stories because they are so different than the story we are told about the war in movies. They are personal,” said Amudalat Ajasa, an 18-year-old dancer in the show. “These elders have gone through their entire lives without really telling these stories, and they deserve to.”
Actors with experience
The play is constructed as a collage of memories combining video and audio recordings and monologues acted by the senior actors portraying the wartime veterans. Some memories — being homeless during the Great Depression, receiving a telegram announcing the death of a loved one in the war, an airman getting shot down — are portrayed in dances by the younger performers.
One person featured in the play is Virginia Claudon Allen, a 99-year-old Episcopal Homes resident who majored in French in college and joined the Red Cross during World War II thinking she was going to drive an ambulance in France.
Instead, her wartime experiences took her from Calcutta to Shanghai, where she rode elephants, battled tropical diseases, acted in plays and saw everything from a leper colony to the Taj Mahal. In India she became a “G.I. Jill,” a radio personality on Armed Forces Radio, broadcasting a morale-boosting program for American troops stationed in China, Burma and India.
“I learned that I was capable of handling myself in any situation,” Allen’s character says in the play.
Another story centers on the experiences of Irv Williams, a musician from Cincinnati who ended up entertaining troops by playing saxophone in a Navy band. Williams, 99, would later play with jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. He settled in St. Paul, and became a longtime regular performer at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.
In the play, Williams is portrayed by Rande Tomas, a 64-year-old Episcopal Homes resident who had a showbiz career himself as a dancer, performing on the “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand” television shows and in Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson videos.
Tomas performs a monologue based on Williams’ memories of how music seemed to overcome the racial segregation that was prevalent in the military at the time.
“The band was fully integrated and every place we went, we got along fine, and we played fine,” Williams’ character says. “The kind of music I played, people were integrated very fast, more than any other group. And it was like, ‘Come to me, hear my music!’ ”
Some of the older actors who were kids during the war also get a chance to describe their memories of the conflict in the play.
“Everybody’s story is important,” said Geralda Stanton, a 91-year-old actor and former music teacher who tells of her experience scrounging empty milk bottles to redeem for money during the Great Depression. “Everyone has a story.”