Bobby Leonhard recalls the time, around Thanksgiving 2003, when he was told his West Virginia National Guard unit was being sent to Iraq. “Starting out it was kind of exciting, just knowing we were going off to this foreign land and we were going to be on the front line. At the same time I was like, wow, I might die out there.” A drama student at West Virginia University whose dad was a career army officer, Leonhard had joined the guard in 1999, when being a weekend warrior seemed a good way to help with college costs. As one of Leonhard’s college friends, Christopher Smith, says: “When it first started happening, Bobby was like, ‘They’re never going to call us. This stuff they do, we don’t know how to do that.'”
By early March 2004 Sergeant Leonhard found himself in charge of a three-man Humvee, guarding convoys on Iraqi highways. “I was in the middle vehicle, so they’d have me be the aggressor. If the convoy got attacked, I’d have to be the one that pursued them. We got hit with AKs and things like that, a few IEDs.” They weren’t exactly well prepared for the job. “The only training we got for that duty was from the people we were replacing,” he says. “We rode with them a couple of times, and then we took over.”
Leonhard began thinking of writing a play while he was overseas and started on it once he returned to the States last February. “I had this vision of me 20, 40 years from now, trying to tell anybody I could at bars. I didn’t want to do that. I can never really talk to any other veteran about what went on over there. They didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to talk about it with them. But I could do it privately. In my own home I could sit there and think and write and share the experience.” The result was Infidel, a script about three soldiers manning a Humvee in Iraq: a driver, Tony; a gunner, a simple soul named Sunshine; and Sergeant Baker, in command of the crew for a year. The play is the first local production by Outside the Lines Theater Company, formed by Leonhard’s college buddies. Lukas de Gruyl directs the show, and Smith plays the gunner, a character managing director Chelsea Stuck describes as “not a happy person.” They all moved to Chicago in 2003 and ’04 because, as Smith says, “It was the kind of city that would really grab onto and foster the things we wanted to do.”
Before heading overseas Leonhard bought a DV camera, thinking he might make a documentary, but the experience was more than he’d bargained for. “During the summer it was just hell, it just fried my brain. I remember one time it was 150 degrees in my Humvee. The weather I believe was 130 degrees, but the sun was bouncing off the white trailers we were guarding. It seemed like such a nightmare, seeing kids walking on the asphalt in that kind of heat, seeing the misery there. I remember the first time I saw dead bodies stacked together like they were nothing.” He gave up on the documentary: “I just didn’t want to remember it–it was too disturbing for me and I didn’t want people to see it back home.”
But Leonhard still had all that footage. Projected over the set in Infidel, forming part of the story, are images of Humvees and tractor-trailers choking dusty highways, a soldier at his mounted gun grinning at the camera like a kid, Iraqis kicking a ball around.
Leonhard says he’d originally conceived the piece as a one-man play–“like I Am My Own Wife”–but de Gruyl convinced him to write it differently. “He said this would be a totally different world for the audience, so you have to expand it, make it bigger, with multiple characters.” De Gruyl cites several meanings for infidel, from the Muslim term for a nonbeliever to any person who rejects doctrine. Leonhard “didn’t believe in the cause,” de Gruyl says. “He didn’t want to go there in the first place.” An early working title, “Bad Soldier,” was meant to evoke not only evil but someone unfit for the task. As de Gruyl says of Leonhard, “They gave him a gun and a blueprint and sent him out to play.” Infidel is meant to be nonjudgmental, de Gruyl adds, aiming to “present the reality of what it’s like for American soldiers in that situation.”
“This is a play about bad people doing good things,” Leonhard says. “Or bad people doing bad things that turn out to be good–for Iraq, that will eventually earn them their freedom.” He says his feelings about the war changed when he made friends with an Iraqi family who lived in a mud house in the desert near his base outside An Nasariyah. “I say I adopted them, but they always said they adopted me. I just grew very close to them, and after a while it stopped being about self-preservation and started becoming about them. I said, damn, I hope these people get their freedom. I hope this little 11-year-old–just the sweetest girl, she was so kind to us–I hope she doesn’t have to fear her government.”
Though Leonhard thinks we were justified in going to war, he says of his fellow soldiers and the characters in his play, “they’re not angels. They have hatred, they want vengeance.”
On July 4 Leonhard appeared on a podium behind President Bush at a rally in Morgantown, West Virginia. A still from a video shows Leonhard dressed in jungle fatigues and beret–he was finishing his time in the National Guard–cocking his right hand as if he were holding a pistol or making a gang sign. Meanwhile Bush waves at the crowd. “I just stood there, let him go at it, tell these things about Iraq and veterans that I felt weren’t entirely accurate,” Leonhard says. It might be the playwright’s last time onstage: he says that, compared to what he expected before going to war, his plans now are “so different it’s ridiculous.” Where once he thought he’d go to LA, maybe try being an entertainer, now he’s married, working on a new play, and applying to law school. “I have to keep busy,” he says. “I can’t sit around anymore.”
When: Opens Thu 10/20, 8:30 PM. Through 11/13: Thu-Sat 8:30 PM, Sun 7 PM.
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark