On stage, vets like Mason Vokes and Josie Benford reveal vulnerable moments from their military service

Military veterans share true-life struggles and triumphs as stars of “Marching On”

By Brian Marks

If there’s one thing Navy vet Paul E. Johnson is sure of, it’s that his first theatrical production will also be his last. Johnson is adamant about that after the opening performances of the military veterans-driven play “Marching On,” which premiered at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills at the end of June.

“It’s not something I want to do,” says Johnson. “But I can appreciate it, because I always appreciate people doing what they enjoy doing. And the other actors enjoy doing it.”

But he’ll have to continue with his acting career — at least for a little while — when he and the military veteran cast of “Marching On” transfer to The Blue Door in Culver City this weekend.

“Marching On” is the latest play produced by CRE Outreach, a nonprofit organization that brings the performing arts to underserved communities throughout Los Angeles. One of CRE’s projects is to put on plays that not only star vets, but also bring their stories and experiences to the spotlight.

“CRE Outreach is all about serving people who don’t normally have a voice,” says CRE co-founder Greg Shane, who directs “Marching On.”
“I felt that veterans needed a place to share their stories, because there’s so much that happens from boot camp to civilian life that they lock in their bodies and don’t have a place to share it.”

The seed for “Marching On” began with cast members sharing their service tales, then Shane and assistant director Jefferson Reid shaping those stories into a cohesive script. Rather than the often jingoistic stories of valor presented in war films, the play conveys both struggles and triumphs of military service through an unvarnished gaze.

One of Johnson’s scenes recounts a tumultuous period during his Navy service. He’s stopped after buying some marijuana, though a fellow soldier has warned him to dispose of anything illegal he’s carrying. In the absence of marijuana, the lint in his pocket is inspected and tests positive for cannabis.

Johnson had other run-ins with military justice over minor drug issues, which he mentions in the play, but he believes his treatment was racially motivated. Johnson is black, like the majority of the cast, and had seen white officers using cocaine, seemingly without repercussions.

“I know this guy sold cocaine to the officers,” Johnson told me. “I’ve sat there on some of the deals! As a matter of fact, I had to do some cocaine when they came in so they knew I was cool.”

Another harrowing vignette is presented as a monologue by Carla Brame Wilkerson, a former Marine. She recounts how soldiers in her all-woman barracks started to notice their possessions were disappearing, and that doors and lights seemed to have been disturbed in the middle of the night.

One night, she awoke to find the lights on in her room and a man grabbing at her chest.

“I said ‘Excuse me,’ and he said ‘No, excuse me,’ and ran out of the room,” recounts Wilkerson.

She chased after him and alerted security, leading to his arrest. Wilkerson stopped the man’s nightly reign of terror, but the event left her with hidden scars. Her sleep has been chronically affected ever since, she says. Her eyeballs have thin red lines running across them, the result of years of sleeping with her eyes partially open. Even now she reports that she only gets about two and half hours of rest a night (the daytime being more hospitable for sleeping).

But “Marching On” has forced her to confront that trauma.

“I was reserving my emotions for the actual performances,” she says. “When I go through the most traumatic part in rehearsal, I try to go through it fast. But when performing it, I get emotional — I could actually cry on cue right there because I feel it in that moment. And I still sleep with the lights on.”

Other stressors didn’t help matters in the wake of her attack. Wilkerson lost her home and her job in the midst of the Great Recession. Since then her situation has improved, and Wilkerson has explored new opportunities — including stand-up comedy, a skill that has helped her be more comfortable on stage.

“I felt empowered once I started doing stand-up,” says Wilkerson. “If I think of something and I think it’s a joke, I jot it down.”

Not every story in “Marching On” recounts traumas from military service, however. There are also stories of personal growth and discovery. Some of the veterans recount learning to cope with anger problems, substance abuse and mental health issues. Acting out their experiences and sharing their stories with an audience also has its own benefits.

“They talk about ‘the therapy,’” says Johnson. “If there’s any therapeutic value [in “Marching On”] for me, it really gave me an opportunity to look at what I’ve accomplished and feel proud of that.”

For Josie Benford, a retired Army sergeant, dramatizing her time in the military is all part of her growth. In the play, she acts out a scene in which an Army doctor informs her that she’ll never be able to have children as the result of surgery for fibroid tumors. Benford is defiant, certain that a child is still a possibility. Sure enough, Benford found out she was pregnant two years after leaving the Army, and now her five-year-old son even has a small part in the play.

“For me, it’s a healing process,” reflects Benford. “I wasn’t always sure that getting out of the military was the right thing for me — until I had my son. He’s enhanced my life in so many ways that I never would have imagined. I feel like I’m on the right path, and this play is helping me continue on that right path.”  

“Marching On” opens at Friday (July 13) and continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through July 22 at The Blue Door, 9617 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $15. Call (310) 902-8220 or visit creoutreach.org.