walls written by jeannie barroga the never ending war

Walls (written by Jeannie Barroga)

“The Never-Ending War”

            A Milwaukee, Wisconsin native,  Jeannie Barroga was born into a Filipino family in a predominantly white community where she  had to prove herself at every turn and overcome the cultural barriers or ‘walls’ growing up. Born in the late 1940’s, she did not write Walls until 1989, when her inspiration to use the Vietnam War finally materialized. This well written play re-awakened emotions and reactions of many Americans who know that, “For one decade [the] whole [U.S.] denied its involvement” (Act2, Scene12, P.259). Barroga uses numerous characters to convey an all-around perspective of times back when the Vietnam War Memorial was being constructed and the nation was in its healing process. A key character she included was Maya Ying Lin, a Chinese American woman who graduated from Yale and had the winning design of the memorial as we see it today. With a few altercations, Maya’s concept consisted of two walls progressively stretching to over ten feet deep in the middle, roughly totaling 493 feet of black granite, where 70 panels held engraved names of each man and woman who lost their lives for this country. Her play explored important issues such as controversies surrounding the design of the memorial, the war itself, and an underlying racial tension that the war brought back home.

            During the Vietnam War there were millions who opposed and protested America’s involvement, but it was not until after the few soldiers who survived and came back that another controversy in deciphering how to honor the fallen had reached our nation’s doorstep. Politics, race, and gender played a lead role in the dispute over the final design of the Vietnam War Memorial. Maya Lin’s simplistic, yet artistic design was chosen through a meticulous process yet met with strong opposition as in Act 2 Scene 7 she said, “It’s disheartening to see the democratic process subverted and to see politics win out over art. I thought this war was fought for freedom. This includes freedom of expression” (P.249). Every American has his or her own opinion about everything, but especially war veterans that wanted a more patriotic and dignified architecture. This monument was not meant to be a political message though, and Maya only wanted to honor those who died, allow visitors to feel free by letting go of their emotions, and for this memorial to be another step in America’s healing process. Veterans composed the largest group of resistance to the final design.  Barroga chose the veteran Carhart, a questionable racist, as the main antagonist towards the memorial as in Act 1 Scene 11 he said,

“A black wall of shame! Memorials, I was brought up to believe should be white. And if there’s any honor involved- it should be above ground. Vets are being put on the back burner again… A vet should have won. A statement should have been made in the name of all vets by a vet. Someone who still carries the scars. Us…” (P.232-3)

Veterans had the right to claim mistreatment by society and the government, but the issue can be seen clearly here as they felt the design was not enough or good enough, almost as if nothing would be sufficient to honor the fallen or heal the pain they suffered through. These veterans and adversaries wanted to put the honor back in memorials and believed that art like this belongs in museums. Although Maya’s entry was still chosen, she felt like additions were not harmonious with the wall, which compromised her original idea. She also states in Act 2 Scene 7 that, “It’s been mentioned- many times, in fact- the fact that me as the designer of a memorial to an Asian war was upsetting” (P.249). Barroga reveals to the audience and reader that there was an underlying racial tension felt by those who looked Asian in America during and after the war. This paralleled to Barroga’s personal life struggle growing up, and as for Maya’s case, this only weakened her support and made it harder to push the design through. Stu, a young Asian American veteran diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, also felt the ramifications of the racial war for he was operated on last in the hospital because he looked Vietnamese. Another factor was that although the women’s rights amendment was ratified a few years before, women were still treated nowhere equal to men, which is still an issue that women fight for today. Barroga’s use of Maya Lin allows us to understand a woman’s viewpoint on a male war.

            Taking a closer look, one can see the writer’s consistent use of symbolism  beginning with the title and all throughout the play. This was possibly the most important aspect of the monument, as the black granite chosen was meant for visitors to not only see his or her reflection, but also to reflect on what happened and the heroic lives lost. The designer best explained this saying,

“They should face it, approach it, perceive the names before they read them. Touch them and realize in the black reflection they’ve touched something in themselves… Even the process of killing the grass in order to build this is important. I meant to show what it’s like to die” (Act1, Scene5, P.221).

Almost like a mirror the fallen can be seen.  Touching themselves refers to the inside so one can let go, reflect within the time, the names, and remember those who put their country before themselves.   Death is inevitable and we must accept it as a part of life’s cycle like the grass dying, but the monument was built where that grass died symbolizing life and the freedom this country stands for. The simplistic concept by Maya allows people to see the layout’s symbolic nature, which described by her as, “it’s like the Earth itself is a wound, and pushing out from it are the names of those who have descended into it and have emerged to remind us they were even here” (Act1, Scene9, P.227). Barroga uses personification, as the Earth can feel the pain this war has caused like a permanent wound (memorial) which will never be forgotten. A woman created this monument, like a mother would a child, which symbolizes mother Earth and the two angled massive walls acting as arms hugging whoever enters. In addition, the title Walls does not only refer to the wall itself, but also to walls visible and invisible which individuals, groups, cultures, and nations put up. Vi, the reporter ended Act 2 Scene 12 with, “We are victims of that war as we are the enemy because walls do exist. Walls are still built” (P.259). These ‘walls’ are invisible measures because deep inside many of us are still afraid and insecure. This wall symbolizes that we are not alone in this healing process. One can see in the play that every character has their own wall, problem, or obstacle to overcome, such as walls of acceptance, identity, discrimination, duty, and service. The memorial and its reflective qualities  are symbolic of the link between the past and present.

            Furthermore, Jeannie Barroga does an excellent job of providing the audience and reader with a looking glass into various perspectives on the Vietnam War and Memorial at that time.  An issue that comes about in every war, is the men and women who do not get recognized for the sacrifices and effort they put in solely because they are not in the battlefield, but on the contrary they are just as important. Protestors pushed hard to bring the troops back home as Julie explained in Act 1 Scene 6, “Don’t discount what I did back then. I fought off nightsticks and tear gas for you guys. Yeah, me and the others, we got you out of the jungle faster” (P.224). Many anti-war activists put their lives on the line as well for the soldiers fighting the war, and so did nurses. There are the few and the quiet that deserve to be honored like the fallen, but Sarah said in Act 1 Scene 12 that, “You won’t see our names up there, and you won’t see our wounds” (P.235). Sometimes it hurts the family and loved ones of the fallen soldiers more that they are still alive and must deal with their son, husband, or friend’s death. There are thousands that may not have been recognized, but they survived and are a part of history.

            I enjoyed Walls since I am performing it, I can relate/identify with the writer’s culture, and also because I enjoy learning about history. History is important so we learn from past and do not repeat mistakes. It is the way we remember harsher times so we can be thankful for the way the world is now. There is always room for improvement though. I chose not to write about Dan, Jerry, Julie, Morris, Terry, and Sarah because I felt as if they were not the main focus of the play. I believe that they were significant to the play as a whole, but Maya, the ‘wall,’ and symbolism were my focus, which made up the bulk of my paper. To end, I would like to express that  the war ended after the fall of Saigon, however it was not resolved and it is not realistically over, even today. The memorial’s ‘art’-war, gender wars, racial wars, and other wars beyond this play continue and will never be forgotten.

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