Military Officers bet on lives of Blacks unloading nuclear munitions: Port Chicago Mutiny

August 21, 20120 Comments

An overwhelming explosion of thousands of tons of naval munitions blew up an American city killing hundreds in July 1944. With the help of many of the Contra Costa historical societies, local students put together a documentary of this tragic event. The video also touches on the racism that influenced this disaster.

Port Chicago Mutiny by Darlene Donloe, who is a writer for the L.A. Watts Times.

Photo by David McFarland

In September 1944, 50 black sailors found themselves in a military courtroom fighting the charge of disobeying orders and inciting mutiny. To add insult to injury, they were also accused of being cowards and guilty of treason.

Depending on what side of the ethnic divide you were on, the men were either completely innocent, and being systematically railroaded by the U.S. Navy, or they were partially culpable.

How the men came to be on trial is the subject of Paul Leaf’s latest production, “Mutiny at Port Chicago.”

A true story, this racially fueled drama, currently playing at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, chronicles what was widely considered the largest stateside military disaster of World War II.

It happened on July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Munitions base, located on San Francisco Bay.

An explosion on the dock completely demolished two transport ships, killed 320 men and injured another 390 on the base, and damaged the small town that surrounded the facility. About two-thirds of those killed were black.

As the story goes, the black sailors, who had originally volunteered with hopes of fighting in the war, were instead relegated to the dangerous job of loading ammunition onto the ships because they were thought to be intellectually challenged and dispensable. At the time, they were the only ones assigned to hazardous manual labor.

Although they warned their white superiors that loading large amounts of ammunition on transport ships at breakneck speed without proper training or equipment would eventually lead to a catastrophe, their warnings went unheeded.

So, it was no surprise to the black GIs when the explosion occurred. What was surprising (or maybe not) is how the Navy handled the situation.

The disaster was deemed an accident of unknown origin.

And when the sailors were ordered to go back to work under the same conditions, the Navy faced a different kind of detonation. The men flatly refused.

This is a fabulous, little-known story.

This kind of event demands a script of great magnitude with actors who can effectively pull it off.

Unfortunately, neither occurs in this production

The material is there, but writer/director Leaf fails to guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. These were volatile times when cooler heads did not prevail. There’s no sense of urgency or intensity in what should be an edge-of-your-seat drama. The severity of the times and the racially sensitive implications concerning the Navy and black GIs falls short.

While some of the actors clearly give passionate, fiery performances, others seem to be reading their lines, which impairs the flow of the show.

J. Teddy Garces, who plays Seaman Edward Little, one of the lead characters, nearly single-handedly saves this production, as does Eric Bivens-Bush, Pedro Coiscou and Durant Fowler, all of whom represent the 50 men accused of mutiny.

While Leaf’s direction is concentrated and fills the intimate setting, some of the characters whose roles should have engulfed the play didn’t convey the raw emotions of the era needed to convincingly sell the production.

This is a powerfully provocative moment in history. The facts surrounding this story are highly explosive (pun intended). However, the weak performances leave this vibrant subject matter dead in the water.

On the Donloe Scale, D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (Outstanding) and E (excellent), “Mutiny At Port Chicago” gets an “N-L” (needs work/likable).

The Ruskin Group Theatre Co. is at 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Performances will take place at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday. The production ends Aug. 15.

Further information: $20 ($15 for students, seniors and guild members), (310) 397-3244, .

Filed in: Banging on the BeastBlack HistoryBlack MenBlacks in the MilitaryExtermination of Black PeopleGenocidePoliticspopulation controlPrison and JailSabotage of the Black RaceWhite Supremacy
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