History remembers a number of women warriors beyond Joan of Arc. There's Fu Hao, China's first recorded female general in the thirteenth century BCE; Amage, who successfully defended Sarmatia eleven hundred years later; and Amanirenas, who stopped the Roman conquest of Kush.
But most stories of women in wartime have never been told. That's partly because they traditionally unfolded on the home front, where women maintained domestic order when conflicts favored their armies, or became spoils of war—as chronicled in Euripides' The Trojan Women and the Book of Deuteronomy—when conflicts did not.
Women's roles in armed conflict have broadened dramatically over the last century. Even before they were allowed to join ground-combat forces in 2016, thousands served in combat-support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan that put them directly in harm's way.
Theater largely hasn't caught up with them; most wartime dramas still focus on the men at the supposed tip of the spear. This prompted Raleigh Little Theatre to seek out three works for a "Women and War" series this month: plays about the experiences of women on the home front, women in the field, and one woman placed by technology in both at once.
Taken together, these three works challenge our ideas about where combat takes place and where it ends. They also show us that the spear of war has a thousand tips, some of them pointed at those who serve and the families who support them.
Many of the forty-six women who auditioned for the Vietnam-era drama A Piece of My Heart (May 5–21) had military experience, according to director Mia Self. Conversations with them have challenged the N.C. State University professor's long-held assumptions about the military and the people who serve.
"It's felt like conversations with artists," Self says. "It's not just a job for them; it's a mission, an identity, and a commitment to bettering the world." The ambivalence she found in Shirley Lauro's script, adapted from a book of interviews by Keith Walker, was borne out in the wartime accounts Self elicited from her cast.
"Instead of unquestioning commitment, there's a sense of internal conflict about the purpose of war," she says. "The intent is to lift everybody up, make the best choices and do the most good in the world. But then you're confronted with day-to-day actions that feel counter to that mission, and that interact with public policy and their position as peacemakers."
The play's six women—nurses, officers, and a USO entertainer—go to extremes in their attempts to cope with combat service. "There's a profound vulnerability in their voices," Self says. Her first reading of the script left her in tears. "There's no way I can do this," she recalls thinking, before thinking again: "There's no way that I can't."
The viability of every military family rests on two questions. How do you enter a relationship knowing that you're going to spend a lot of time missing and worrying about someone—and knowing they might not come home? And what happens when our government doesn't keep its promises to families?
Documentary playwright Mike Wiley made Downrange: Voices from the Homefront (May 26–27) from a 2014 series of workshops with military spouses from Fort Bragg. As he read other plays on the subject, Wiley noticed that most of them dealt with things like post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal husbands.
"They were mostly about the service member, not the spouse," Wiley says.
He learned how notice of a coming deployment, or the lack thereof, affects family relationships, and what happens on the day the soldier leaves, the day after, and over the months that follow. As Wiley and colleagues Lynden Harris and Kathryn Hunter-Williams spoke with the spouses of active, retired, and deceased soldiers and the partners of wounded veterans, an unusually nuanced portrait came into view.
"Their everyday lives aren't a soap opera," Wiley says of military spouses. "There are so many depictions out there that are so far from the truth."
In a computerized age, work isn't all that can follow you home. War can, too. Michelle Murray Wells wanted to restage her solo production of Grounded (May 27–28), about a female fighter pilot dealing with new psychological pressures after a pregnancy shifts her to the drone squad, because she refused to be grounded herself.
She'd been busier than usual in recent months, finding a new venue for Sonorous Road Productions, starting renovations and a Kickstarter campaign to fund them, and juggling classes and productions with the company's managing director (and her husband), Josh, at their present building on Oberlin Road—all while completing the last trimester of her own pregnancy.
But recovering from childbirth has taken longer than she expected, and she's still not sure how she'll execute the calisthenics demanded of the Air Force fighter pilot she's played twice before, three weeks from now. But, given her ties to George Brandt's psychological drama, there was no saying no.
"I've seen firsthand how women are affected by the military," Murray Wells says. "When Josh deployed to Iraq, it was a really hard year in my life. I wanted him to be there with me, but suddenly I had to share him with the rest of the country." So she got involved and, as Josh's battalion's Family Readiness Coordinator, received a Commander's Award for Civilian Service for organizing volunteers to help families meet unexpected challenges during deployment.
The protagonist in Grounded confronts some of the challenges explored in the other two productions. After her identity as a fighter pilot is taken from her, the coping mechanisms she uses to deal with marathon drone-flight missions slowly begin to fail. Her family's well-being is threatened as the boundaries of combat grow blurred.
That fact will not surprise the women who've long encountered war, either by proxy or up close. But, with an increasing number of them in combat, it's high time the rest of us got the news.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theater of War."