Love and War
BC faculty member brings her parents' Korean War correspondence to the stage
The moving Korean War correspondence shared between two young sweethearts, who later married, has been brought to life — and the stage — by their daughter, Theatre Department lecturer Susan Thompson.
Based on the couple’s love letters, Thompson wrote a play titled “Unforgettable: Letters from Korea” with assistance from students Alexandra Lewis ’14 and Matthew Giggey ’15. The play premiered in July at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War and the Gathering of Korean War Veterans.
Supported by BC Undergraduate Research Fellowships, Lewis and Giggey worked with Thompson to transcribe and research the archival letters written during the war between infantry platoon leader Dwight Thompson and Cleora Barnes, then a University of Connecticut senior. Her parents were married just days after her father’s return from Korea in August, 1954.
The BC students traveled to the nation’s capital over the summer for the performance with Thompson and the Boston-based Pilgrim Theatre Company, of which she is one of three core artists. Directed by Pilgrim member Kim Mancuso, the cast features other actors and musicians from the troupe and Lewis as the protagonists’ daughter. The show interweaves her memories with portrayals of Dwight and Cleo (who is played by Thompson), both young and old, and integrates song, letters and poetry.
In the play’s program, Thompson wrote: “My parents’ love for each other was forged, in part, by their separation during the Korean War. So were essential elements of who they became. During 1953 and 1954 they grew up. My mother discovered a life-long love of city planning and historic preservation that would sustain her through multiple moves and two wars.”
Because “the Korean War is often called ‘The Forgotten War,’” Thompson notes, “we are playing with the idea of forgetting and remembering.” A depiction of Cleo at age 70 with Alzheimer’s and Dwight caring for her at age 74, she explains, is “a parallel to being in the trenches during the war.
“But most of the show is the young couple, very much in love and separated by war.”
Appropriately, the production had its genesis at BC’s 2011 Veterans Day service, when Thompson — immersed in reading her parents’ letters — attended the ceremony and met the Korean War Commemoration Committee director, Col. David Clark ’81. They formed a plan to stage the play as part of the nation’s 60th anniversary observance of the Korean War, which run through 2013.
Lewis and Giggey sometimes were the first to read the letters during their work on the project. They also “collected images and maps that help us more clearly lay out where Dwight and Cleo were at any given month,” according to Thompson. “I had a wonderful time working with Susan and Alexandra on such a unique and interesting project,” said Giggey. “It is an incredible feeling that I helped to create a play with such great significance. It was clear to me that the veterans really appreciated our work and it was fascinating to hear their stories. Getting to work with professionals at Arena Stage was an educational experience and further strengthened my love of the arts.”
In Washington, the students had the opportunity to meet the war veterans and to attend a special ceremony for the Korean War at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I am so honored to have been able to perform for the veterans,” Thompson said. “Many of them are over 80 [years old]. I have reconnected with some of the men my father served with in Korea and heard first-hand about the conditions in the trenches. They have even told me stories about my father that I have never heard.”
And Thompson has since received correspondence from veterans who saw the show in Washington. “I was most moved by them telling us, ‘You got it right! That was how it was!’”
Of the performance, she said: “Alex was perfect for the ‘daughter’ character, not only because she is a talented actress, but because she knew the material and had put all those hours into the letters.”
A Theatre major with an American Studies minor, Lewis is the daughter of actors David Anderson Lewis, of BC’s Information Technology Services Department and Patricia Riggin, a Theatre Department faculty member.
Giggey, Thompson said, is “a tech wiz and so enthusiastic. He built a power-point slide show for the piece based on archival family and other photos. He is the ‘I can do it’ crew member.” The Carroll School student was a technical designer for the production.
Asked to speculate on what her late parents would think of the play, Thompson says: “I think they kept these letters and treasured them because they were part of their history. My father and mother both loved history and I think they realized, even as they were writing, that those were momentous days.”
She also has a cache of correspondence between her parents from the Vietnam War, “when they were married and my mom had four children. The Vietnam letters will be another project.”
The project received support from Boston College and the Commonwealth School (where Thompson also teaches).
For more information, contact Thompson at www.susantheater.com or Pilgrim Theatre at http://pilgrimtheatre.org.
A local performance featuring excerpts from the production will be held on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, at the Acton Jazz Cafe from 4-5 p.m. A benefit for the American Legion’s Operation Comfort Warrior Program, the suggested donation is $10.