Miami war veterans use performance to process their ‘post-service’ lives

Arts / Article

Photo: Andrew Cuthbert, Hipolito Arriaga, Allen Minor and Anthony Torres. Photo by TeeJay Smith.

“All we knew was kill, we’re ready for the thrill, at least until we got back home and didn’t know how to feel,” raps Iraq war veteran Andrew Cuthbert in the spoken-word performance “Conscience Under Fire.” “I am not your guinea pig, or some crazy guy you’re seein’. I have a name, I have a voice, I am a human being.”

Cuthbert, Hipolito Arriaga, Allen Minor and Anthony Torres are the four performers in “Conscience,” an innovative and intensely powerful play that evolved from the four Miami-based veterans’ experiences after returning home from a brutal physical and psychological war, only to find these shores also inhospitable. The work will be performed locally on the anniversary weekend of Sept. 11.

“Conscience Under Fire” started under unique circumstances. It is an offshoot of a broader project from Miami Dade College’s cultural arm, MDC Live Arts, which received a 2014 Knight Arts Challenge grant to produce the Basetrack project this past spring. It involved bringing “Basetrack Live,” a traveling multimedia production built around the stories of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, to Miami; producing a photography exhibit; and creating a series of workshops that invited local Miami veterans to unravel their painful tales through a literary–and hopefully liberating–vehicle. The creative writing workshop Live Arts Veterans’ Lab was born, led by local director and theater artist Teo Castellanos.

Castellanos made his name with the award-winning, one-person performance “NE 2nd Avenue,” in which he impersonated the widely varied people who live along that urban corridor of Miami, and also directed a men’s theater program in prisons; through his own history and creations, he always had his ears to the ground and to those who lacked a voice. For some of these reasons, MDC Live Arts Executive Director Kathryn Garcia, who was developing the Basetrack project, knew Castellanos would be a great fit to oversee the workshop.

“It was so important to us for local vets’ voices to be heard,” along with those of their families, says Garcia, and to bring it out to the public. Like veterans of so many wars, they often suffer alone, with the surrounding communities oblivious to the struggle of “post-service” lives.

But it wouldn’t be easy, working out trauma and post-trauma through words, and airing it so openly. Eventually, the four veterans and Castellanos developed a performance about 30 minutes long, and debuted it at the Betsy Hotel on South Beach last April.

Hipolito Arriaga. Photo by TeeJay Smith.

“I was blown away by it,” recalls Garcia. “It was so visceral–there clearly was such a desire to communicate.” As she had hoped, it wasn’t just a play; it was also a therapeutic experience for all those involved, including the audience, and “it really energized” the four newly minted performers.

They created a group and Facebook page called Combat Hippies and were determined to continue the project. “They really grew” along with the play, says Garcia.

Increasingly, the group started to stress in interviews the “post-traumatic growth, the positive that comes from our wounds, in an artistic expression” in the new material they were working on. While the men want the public to know about the high rates of suicide of vets, of the struggles they have encountered, they’ve also moved on to constructive messaging. On their lively website, the Combat Hippies state: “We as a group are using the performing arts to destigmatize veterans’ issues, such as post-traumatic stress, suicide and community reintegration. But raising awareness isn’t enough. Our goal is to engage the community because we are stronger together.”

The latest iteration of their performance is fully staged, longer and includes a lighting designer, but it will still be directed by Castellanos and accompanied by music of DJ Brimstone. Though the main performances will be held at Teatro Prometeo during DWNTWN Art Days, there will also be two pop-up performances at Miami Dade College’s Homestead and Wolfson campuses. It’s in keeping with trying to bring these stories to a wider public, according to Garcia. “These pop-ups are short excerpts from the play,” she says, “in order to share with non-veterans.”

But now the energized group wants to go bigger, Garcia says, and share “Conscience Under Fire” nationally, engaging again both vets and a broader community. But again, they may face similar difficulties. While the Combat Hippies seem to have thrived from their experience, Garcia says vets in general are still hesitant: “It’s not an easy thing to get them involved.”

But if anybody can, Garcia thinks it’s this group. “I really believe in them, they are so self-motivated,” she says. This unique, evolving artistic expression project might be the best way to get them involved, all across the country.  

“Conscience Under Fire” will be performed at 8 p.m. Sept. 11 and 12 at Teatro Prometeo. Tickets, which can be reserved online, are free but very limited.

Excerpts of “Conscience Under Fire” will be presented during pop-up performances at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 10 at Miami Dade College’s Homestead campus (room F222), and at 11:15 a.m. on Sept. 11 at the Wolfson Campus (room 2106). Visit the MDC Live Arts website for more information.