Volume 77 / Number 35 Jan. 30 - Feb. 05, 2008
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Photo by Carol Rosegg

Playwright Trista Baldwin, whose play, “Sand,” enters previews on Thursday at the Julia Miles Theater.

Amidst the sands of Iraq, a spring of humanity

BY JERRY TALLMER

Mom makes fourteen grand a year
Works night and day till she got gray hair
Mom says Son don’t you be like me
Gotta get yourself a college degree
Mom I ask what about the money
Son don’t be silly there’s the U.S. Army

Thus the cadence count of two American soldiers dogtrotting through the sands surrounding one lone desolate gas pump that stands in the middle of nowhere like Beckett’s tree. Yes, a gasoline station and gas pump in the middle of an Arabia Deserta. Playwright Trista Baldwin has seen just such a phenomenon in the newspapers.

The soldiers, there to guard that gas pump, are Justin Peterson, early 20s, white and baffled, from Springfield, Oregon, and Keisha Williams, 18, black and peppy, from Jersey City. A third G.I., Armando Sabados, from Puerto Rico, is considerably less naïve than Justin and less affirmative than Keisha.

Naïveté — American naiveté about unpleasant things like wars — is in fact one of the prime concerns of Trista Baldwin’s curiously disturbing “Sand” at the Julia Miles Theate — all the more curious because all that sand becomes a sort of character itself into which, or from which, people and objects fade out and reappear (sometimes in other guises) like holograms, like ghosts.

As she was writing it, Ms. Baldwin said last week by telephone from Minnesota, where she teaches playwriting at St. Cloud State University, “Sand” became “something that wasn’t political so much as a cry for our country.”

What had set it off was the appearance in the press and on television of the first casualties in Iraq — “so young and full of hope, the American dream, going to college” and all that.

“I was protesting the war before the war started,” the playwright said, “and noticed how the protests were not getting much media coverage at all. Then the war happened anyway” while she was still in New York writing and directing plays, “and I shifted my attention from protest to the history of Iraq, going back to the involvement of the British and its creation.”

Justin Peterson, in a letter home: Dear Mom…hi. Hello. Greetings from Mars. Bored. Alive. Dead stupid. Desert is…weird…

This place, Mom? Turns out it’s make-believe. British made it up. I read that…British made it up, but, the people? They didn’t believe it, just lines in the sand to them. Just lines in the sand this place ain’t even real…All the borders start to unravel because they aren’t real borders, they were made up by the British by WWI when the Ottoman Empire fell apart.

What reigns in much of America, the playwright feels, is a “pre World War I mentality —‘Yeah, sign me up for a weekend heroes’ event’ — and the first Gulf War [Bush Sr.’s only too easy war] sort of backed that up.”

Then came Iraq War II and these young products of “under-educated America” being sent there with no sense of history. “Accidental soldiers,” she calls them. “ ‘Whoops, I’m in Iraq!’”

But as she worked on the play, “it started to become personal in terms of my own family.” Justin Peterson in “Sand” has a kid sister back home in Oregon who flickers in and out of the scene. Had a kid sister, that is to say, who’d committed suicide with no advance warning.

Thorin Baldwin, Trista’s six years’ younger brother, walked into his high school, in Tacoma, Washington, and without warning, shot himself to death at 17.

He came to school with a gun in his back pocket. “Yes, we were close,” said Baldwin.

Thank God he didn’t kill anyone else, this interviewer ventured to say.

“Exactly,” said Thorin’s sister.

At the time she was living in Seattle and working as a bagel baker. They gave her the federally requisite three days off.

“An uncle of ours also killed himself. It gets to be like a Greek tragedy after awhile. I’m kind of obsessed with how badly we all deal with grief, and how our culture denies that, just pushes it away.”

In fact she’s now writing a play called “Forgetting,” that deals with all that. A far cry, you may perhaps think, from the writer/director of, among other works, Off-Off-Broadway’s 2003 “Chicks With Dicks,” a feminist campy spoof of Roger Corman’s biker films of the 1960s.

Well, this feminist playwright whose “Sand” is brought to us by the Women’s Project, has a husband named Dean Snell — a Web designer — and a 2-year-old daughter named Ila.

Trista Baldwin has also given birth, in another sense, to that dynamite 18-year-old from Jersey City, Private Keisha Williams, with whom Justin Peterson has fallen in love, and you may too. Trista Baldwin certainly has. “She’s not me at all, but I care about her a lot — her innocence and her humanity.”

SAND. By Trista Baldwin. Directed by Daniella Topol. With Alex Beard, Angela Lewis, and Pedro Pascal. A presentation of the Women’s Project, entering previews February 1 at the Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th Street, 212-239-6200.


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