On April 30, 1971, a black Vietnam veteran named Dwight Johnson was killed while allegedly trying to rob a store in Detroit. After his death, it was revealed that he was a Medal of Honor winner, much decorated, and the train of events that led from his battlefield heroics to his demise on the streets of Detroit provoked headlines and debate.
At least two plays sprang from Johnson's story; one was "The Medal of Honor Rag," by Tom Cole, and the other was "Strike Heaven on the Face," by Richard Wesley, which will be performed by the Howard University Drama Department this week. Wesley, screenwriter and playwright, is a 1967 graduate of Howard.
Although his play had a showcase production in 1973, said Wesley, it didn't go any farther at the time. "The play came out at a time when all the notoriety that Vietnam veterans are receiving now was not talked about very much," he said in a recent interview. "Most people were not really hooked into problems that returning veterans were having; it was still a question of prosecuting, or ending, the war, depending on your point of view.
"I was a little hurt and angry at the time I wrote the play," Wesley said. "Two friends of mine had already been killed in Vietnam, and I wanted to say something about what was going on with the veterans. A guy I had known since kindergarten had survived the war only to succumb to his wounds in a V.A. hospital in upstate New York a year and a half after he had been discharged.
"There was another guy who explained something to me about what it meant to be a Vietnam veteran that I had never fully considered before. He was paying his college tuition by being a policeman. He was assigned to the worst district in Newark, so in effect still in a battle zone. He had just gotten out of the army.
"He was telling me about his last day in combat. He was in a fire fight most of that morning; it subsided somewhat in the afternoon, some helicopters flew in with replacements, landed to the rear of the position he was in, the sergeant came over and told him to get his gear together and get in the chopper . . . so he gets in, flies back to the rear, showers, changes uniforms, is given his papers, flies out, and 16 hours later he was in Seattle, Wash. He received his discharge, some money, and a few hours after that he was back in Newark. Twenty-four hours after a fire fight he was back in civilian life in New Jersey.
"I started asking around; I wanted to know what was going on in these guys' heads. A friend of mine, we were playing basketball together, he told me about his cousin who was staying with them. The cousin was asleep on the couch. My friend came into the room to find a ballpoint pen. He found one and he clicked it a few times to make sure it worked, and his cousin jumped up and attacked him. He thought he was cocking a gun."
An incident similar to that is in the play. The title comes from "Macbeth," Act IV, scene II: "Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face."
Wesley, who grew up near Newark, the son of a paint factory laborer, had a 1-Y deferment during the war because his father was dying of cancer, and his brother had already enlisted. He said he tried to enlist in the Air Force after he graduated, but scored too low on the test. After some fertile apprenticeship years with the now-defunct New Lafayette Theater headed by playwright Ed Bullins in New York, he began to attain a measure of financial success writing movies, including "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Let's Do It Again." His play "The Mighty Gents" had a moderately successful run on Broadway.
"At Howard in the mid and late '60s, civil rights struggles were more important than anything else," he recalled. "Later on, you were either an assimilationist or a nationalist. I was a nationalist," although he was in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). "ROTC was seen as a possible evil, an extension of American foreign policy which was oppressing third world people all over the world . . . There were people who protested against fraternities and sororities because they were an extension of bourgeois thought which had no place in the struggle," he laughed.
Wesley, 37, who lives near Newark with his wife and two daughters, is a thoughtful and serious man, always curious about how people think. He wants his plays to lead audiences to make their own choices, and believes that art must have a purpose to justify itself. While still describing himself as a "nationalist," he said his views have matured and moderated.
"Eighty years ago Booker T. Washington said, in effect, that the primary struggle that black people had to engage in was an economic one. Before we could gainfully enjoy civil rights we had to acquire economic rights, and by extension from those economic rights we'd have the political power we needed to change the laws that affect us. He was opposed by others who felt that civil rights was more important. Now there are people who are saying that Booker T. Washington was right, because when you look at the levels of poverty in Washington and other large cities in the country you realize that if black people had stronger economic power, perhaps they could use that power to turn into political power to effect the kind of changes that they want. I still believe that. I've always believed that . . . I came from a generation of people who came to realize that public accommodations in the Waldorf-Astoria meant absolutely nothing when the majority of people cannot even afford the bus to get to the Waldorf."
He is writing a movie for Motown's new film division about the maturing process of a rock singer, but meanwhile continues to work on several plays exploring his generation of middle-class black college graduates, the same vein Michael Weller tapped in "Moonchildren" and "Loose Ends."
"We are the most spoiled generation of the 20th century. We had more in terms of material things, and we also had television, which opened up the world to us in a way our parents and grandparents never had. We were raised by parents who grew up during the Depression, then fought a war, lived through the war years and then came home, got married and conceived us. Then they spent the rest of the '40s, the '50s and the '60s trying to protect us from the world, and give us all the things they never had. They sort of engendered in us an attitude that allowed us to take all these creature comforts for granted. That is compounded with some of the things we had to experience growing up. Air-raid drills . . . the Communists lurking behind every corner. By the time I was 5, America was in another war in Korea. It ended when I was 8. Right after that was the McCarthy hearings. The election of 1956 I remember, the Eisenhower-Adlai Stevenson debate. That was the first time a lot of us learned it was not always good to be smart . . . the intellectual was rejected for the image. It was television."
When students ask him how he became a success, he harps on the subject of discipline. "We always talked about that being the first level -- first get your head, your spirit together, then you can move into dealing with external problems. So sometimes I write plays with characters who have a very strong sense of self-discipline, and these characters would always seem to be in total control all the time. They would be the ones that survived. Sometimes I meet people who are still stuck in 'black is beautiful.' The thing is, like, so what? So we're beautiful, now what? You can't use racism as an excuse any more for not doing anything. It's been like that for 400 years, so what? It's a racist society, and you have two alternatives: You can move ahead or you die."