Civilian Playwright Mona Mansour on Reading/Writing Military Themes

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Mona Mansour is a playwright and one of the members of the Bridge Award judging panel. Her recent play, We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War, tackles issues dealing with military service and is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Golden Thread theater in San Francisco. The Bridge Award coordinator, Anna O'Donoghue, recently sat down with Mona to talk about her process of working on the play, and what it's like for a civilian writer to approach topics of military life. 


Tell me a little bit about We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War. 

The play was a commission for something called Middle East America initiative. I'm half Lebanese, it's a big part of my identity; This is the first time I've written directly into my experience of being half Middle Eastern, half American. The play is about a woman and her nephew and his wanting to be in the Army - particularly, the face that he wants to fly an Apache helicopter. It came out of conversations I had with my own newphew and was really informed by my desire to care for him and my trying to understand him. The play is essentially a conversation happening through time between these two people who have a kind of non-negotiable love for each other. 

What's your personal relationship with/personal background with the military?

My dad had come to the United States from Lebanon in the late '50s and was drafted to the Army in the early '60s. He got stationed at an accounting office in Fort Benning, Georgia, and spent most of his time doing payroll for people who were about to head to Vietnam or overseas. It's hard for me to imagine him doing basic training - and it's really hard for me to imagine him taking orders! But, I guess he did. So, anyway, for my nephew - both of his grandfathers served in Vietnam.

What was your research/development process for the play? What was it like to apporach military topics from a civilian perspective?

Even though I'd grown up in San Diego, there were really basic things I didn't know at first, like how ROTC works. Rather than bypass my areas of ignorance, I wanted to put those in the play, to bring people in. The first time I sent my nephew a draft of the play, he responded really positively to it - his first response was, "Whoa, how did you remember all that?" because so many moments and experiences that are in the play actually happened.

The character of the American soldier was largely based on someone I met on a plane. I got on a cross-country flight years ago and saw that I'd be sitting next to a guy in fatigues. And I remember thinking, Oh no. I have to sit next to this guy? I had a knee-jerk reaction to the military - a response that I had to growing up being inundated with yellow ribbons and with the notion that we aren't supposed to question what our leaders are doing. But this guy sitting next to me on the plane, we got talking, and sort of talked the entire six hours, and we actually became friends. At that time, he was between tours in Afghanistan. We kept in touch on Facebook and years later, when I started digging into the play, we talked for several hours. That was hugely important for me, and I'm just so eternally grateful to him. I think he was glad to share some of what he shared too. Some of the stuff he talked about he hadn't shared with anyone at that point. 

Along the way, I happened to hear Andrew Bacevich on NPR and the way he speaks and writes about the military has done a great deal to change my perspective. His books really woke me up to ask: What are my responsibilities as a citizen? We're in continuous war right now, and many civilians have no idea what's going on. So at what point are we as citizens failing our soldiers right now by allowing our leaders to make these decisions while we're kind of asleep at the wheel?

You were part of the judging panel for the inaugural year for the Bridge Award process - what was it like for you as a playwright and a person to engage with work by this community?

It further complicated the narrative that I have about people who serve. I maybe thought I'd be reading material about one set of issues, but there were plays about everything, in every kind of style. And that made me think, Oh right, of course, there's all kind of people in this community. And there was some really great writing, and it's not that it surprised me but I was like, Oh wow. I'm so glad this award exists - it needs to exist - and I'm so glad to be a part of it. 

What is your hope for the military audience members who come to see We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War?

That they'll see arguments about the military, and about war, presented with nuance and love. I hope it opens up a conversation for audiences - that there's parts of their experience and points of view being aired, that they haven't see in this kind of conversation. There are discussions in the play about the different types of people in the service, like the differences between an enlisted man or woman and an officer, and the class differences people experience. And I just hope they feel seen and respected. And I'm also hoping that other people who grew up with that feeling of not feeling fully American - that people who identify with that sense of being half and half - that they'll respond to it.

The play is very sparse - only about 70 minutes long - and afterwards, the people at the theater bring out wine and chalk. And they say, "We'd love you to stay, have some wine, talk amongst yourselves, and if you're inspired to write on the chalkboard - there's a chalkboard that's been used throughout the show - we'd love you to do that. And the question we want to leave you with is, 'How has your own life been impacted by the military and by war?"

And the things people write, it's just incredible, it's so moving. There's just so much to be talked about with all this. 

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