ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Even though The American Boys is only his second full-length play, Stephen Mack Jones shows signs of having what it takes to become an excellent playwright. His talent lies in making the art of the writer look easy, in letting his characters speak for themselves and not interfering with the flow of their thoughts. In his bittersweet dissection of the unfulfilled dreams of the 1960s, Jones addresses the plight of American blacks who came home from Vietnam only to fight tougher battles here, yet he never loses his balance or humor.

Certainly enough trees have been wasted on scripts about the struggles of the Vietnam generation, about Big Chill-style reunions of hippies-turned-yuppies whose only contribution to the civil rights movement was the integration of their album collections. Unlike standard 60s nostalgia fare, Jones’s account of the reunion of four Vietnam buddies refuses to burn with unearned rage or wallow in phony sentimentalism. It’s a realistic, evenhanded portrayal of ordinary men who’ve drifted apart yet remain bound together by their history.

The American Boys takes place over the course of one evening in the bar of Vietnam vet James Beckworth (Charles Michael Moore), who has invited his three surviving best friends from the war to join him after the funeral of their comrade Benjamin Tyler Cramer, who has died of AIDS. The financially strapped Beckworth, whose “old lady” has left him, fixes drinks and plays the Temptations and Aretha Franklin on the jukebox while kicking around old times with the brainy Oliver “Sherlock” Jones (David Barr), the bitter, sexually obsessed Sparkman Blade (Ed Wheeler), and the intellectual, level-headed Dodge Parker (Donn Carl Harper).

The conversation shifts back and forth between fond remembrance of the way things were and disappointment with the way things turned out. They look back in anger at the white friends they had in the 60s who turned their backs on them when a generation’s priorities changed from peace and love to CD players and Volvos. They recall the women who loved them in the 60s for their dashikis and “big-ass Afros” but now regard them with a combination of fear and contempt. Vietnam is spoken of in hallowed tones as a place where horrific circumstances created true friendships and a sense of brotherhood. “It was the ultimate game of one-on-one,” says one of the men. Another remarks, “Vietnam is the most alive I felt in all my life.”

The night wears on and the drinking gets heavier as good-natured ribbing and bonding give way to heated conflict. The resentment the men feel as double outcasts–blacks and Vietnam vets–gets directed at each other. Sparkman and Sherlock nearly come to blows when Sparkman accuses Sherlock of being an Uncle Tom for cultivating a soft-spoken, cerebral demeanor and Sherlock ridicules Sparkman for having a phony black-power attitude. According to Sherlock, Sparkman never had anything more than “an Afro and rhetoric you didn’t understand.”

As one might expect, the differences between the men are resolved, and the play ends on a hopeful note as friendships are strengthened and bonds are renewed. For those too dense to grasp the play’s “united we stand, divided we fall” message, the jukebox blares out Dionne Warwick’s rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For” as the lights dim toward the final blackout.

What makes The American Boys such a good play is not the aphoristic message, but the complexity of issues it addresses along the way. In addition to critiquing the hypocrisy of the 60s and the greed of the 90s, Jones speaks out against urban black-on-black violence and the destruction of black culture, and his characterization of the deceased Cramer provides a compelling case for the right of gays to serve in the military. This might sound preachy, but it’s not. Jones is such a subtle, skilled writer that he manages to weave the issues gracefully into ordinary conversation. He’s also more concerned with getting the audience to think about the questions he raises than with providing answers for them.

Chuck Smith directs with an exceedingly light touch, coaxing four superbly understated performances out of his cast. And Dorian Sylvain’s set gives a basement-recreation-room feel to Beckworth’s bar, making us feel right at home with the complex, well-drawn characters.