[NoHo Arts District, CA] – Port Chicago 50, one of the West Coast’s most moving new dramas, is returning to the Morgan-Wixson Theatre from February 8-10 after performing Off-Broadway.
Port Chicago, on the Suisin Bay at the estuary of the Sacamento and the Joaquin rivers was built shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Its purpose to load munitions on ships destined for the Pacific Theatre of operations. The munitions were delivered to the port by rail, but the loading and stocking of the ships was performed entirely by hand, using enlisted and subscripted men, the majority of which were African American. These men were newly enlisted and completely untrained for their duties, and unfamiliar with the very dangerous task set them. So it was hardly surprising that on the evening of July 17, 1944, after many long and arduous shifts, under pressure, exhausted and untrained disaster struck.
Three hundred twenty sailors and civilians were killed instantly when a winched failed, fell and ignited fuel, which in turn caused thousands of live munitions and bombs and torpedos to detonate and the two ships being loaded to exploded. The nearby Coast Guard fire boat was thrown 600 feet upriver were it sank. The fireball was three miles wide and 12,000 feet high. There were 390 injured, some profoundly and two thirds of the dead and injured were enlisted African American sailors. Only 51 of the dead could be identified, such was the devastation.
After the disaster and the profound lack of care and consideration for the survivors and their families or even a change to training or procedures, three divisions of sailors were called in as replacements to continue the task of loading munitions, 328 men in all. After being marched to the docks and given their orders they refused saying they were afraid and would not load munitions under the same conditions and the command of the same officers as before. In total, 258 Black sailors were imprisoned in a barge made to hold 75. After negotiations, threats and a few days of incarceration 50 soldiers remained adamant that they would not obey the orders to work – the Port Chicago 50. They were charged with mutiny and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
Port Chicago 50 was produced at the Whitmore Lindley many years ago, quite successfully. We were so happy the producers continued to develop and expand the play and are thrilled to see it return to Los Angeles at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica in February.
We had a million questions, of course. It’s a riveting story and a sadly almost forgotten tragedy in American history. One well worth remembering and learning from with much that is still very relevant today.
We asked the co-writer and producer Dennis Rowe if he could fill us in on a few details about the story, the production, and why it felt so important to him and his co-writer and producer David Shackleford.
Hi Dennis, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your show, Port Chicago 50. What was it about this terrible event that made you want to create a show about it?
David Shackleford, co-writer and co-producer, and I were unaware of the event and it was such a horrific event that David and I (co-writers) wanted to bring awareness to the story. Then we met many families of people whose parents were a part of the event or were directly familiar with the sailors or the event in some way or another, and the story became personal to David and myself.
How long did this project take to come together?
We first did it as a seven-minute black history skit for church. Then we decided to expand the skit into an hour-long show and perform it at the Whitmore Lindley in North Hollywood on July 17th (5 months later). The show was so well received, we decided to continue expanding it into full-length show and we have been performing the show over the last nine years, tweaking and perfecting it.
Tell us about some of the struggles you had, and some of the surprises:
We haven’t had many major struggles other than regular challenges of opening a theatrical show; finances and the right theater. Although the pandemic was very tough. We were supposed to go to Chicago and of course, that had to be scrapped. Also, being inspired by true events, we have always wanted to be as true to the story as possible. To that end, we have been blessed to meet the children of some of the sailors and Betty Reid Soskin whose character is in the show.
Tell us about the casting of the show.
From Los Angeles to New York we have had great cast members. Most of the original cast is still with the show. We were also blessed to have Hal Williams from 227 as a part of our original cast.
You have a background in TV and film as well as theatre, so why did this become a play and not a movie?
Theatre is my first love and in most cases, I try to perform projects on the stage first. However, in some cases, the project may not fit as a theatre piece but work better on television or the big screen. Port Chicago 50 fit both mediums and we are also working toward the film version of the event.
What do you hope the audience understands most about the Port Chicago tragedy from the production?
Our goal is to highlight the men who worked tirelessly for their country, under terrible conditions. They were heroes and we pay tribute to them.
How do you think theatre can be used to educate and inform about our history?
Theatre is the best medium to educate and inform about American history. There is nothing like seeing that history come to life, and make it real to the audience member, up close and personal.
What did you learn from this project?
I learned about American history, Black history, WWII and how men against all odds preserved.
Do you have some advice for anyone thinking of producing original theatre?
It can be the greatest joy in life! But it is not for the faint of heart. Do you homework, get your feet wet working with someone else first before you take on a project yourself. Get a great team you can trust and will share your vision! Once you decide it’s your path in life, go for it!!
Theatre had a hard go of it after the pandemic (as everything). It was very difficult to bounce back and unfortunately, some theatres didn’t make it. But theatre is needed today. It’s almost the only place where you can learn, be enlighten and entertained all at the same time. Theatre cannot survive without our audience. We need you! Please support all theatre!!
Port Chicago 50 opens at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. Santa Monica on February 8 and runs through February 10.