On Aug. 31, President Barack Obama declared resolutely from the Oval Office that Operation Iraqi Freedom was over. ""It is now time to turn the page,"" the President announced. Though the combat mission in Iraq may be officially over by government standards, the repercussions and the subsequent coping and healing must now begin.
Here in Tucson, the publishing company Kore Press has boldly composed a project to begin developing an understanding of the experience of war from a woman's perspective. The company's exploration of women in combat has manifested itself in a provocative play and discourse series, ""Coming in Hot"", which will run in Tucson from Sept. 8-24.
""Coming in Hot"" is an onstage adaptation of ""Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq"", co-edited by feminist publishing company Kore Press chief executive Lisa Bowden and author Shannon Cain. The book is a collection of diverse memoirs and poetry from women in the military, ranging from those on the front lines of combat to the more overlooked positions, like those in food service and construction. The 15 monologues are being staged as a duo, with seasoned actress Jeanmarie Simpson performing the dramatic readings while acclaimed violinist Vicki Brown provides the evocative score.
Jeanmarie Simpson has been performing for nearly 40 years and sought out the project rather than being cast by Bowden. ""Really, she chose me,"" Bowden said. Simpson is both a classically trained actress and a stalwart activist for peace. She is a prominent member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 2008, at a WILPF meeting, Simpson met Cain, who was giving a reading from the anthology. Simpson was immediately struck by the poignancy and urgency of the piece, and thus ""Coming in Hot"" was ignited for the purpose of offering a unique and necessary view of a woman's military experience. Simpson was anxious to give these women a voice.
The performance consists solely of Simpson's dramatic reading and Brown's score. The set is bare — the stage features only Simpson and Brown positioned in front of a large, white projection screen upon which images from the war are cast. The images are stark and striking — women in uniform marching with focus, close-up images of airplanes, detailed photos of women soldiers' faces. The pictures appear for mere moments, then fade to be replaced, creating a sense of brevity and immediacy that pulses through Simpson's words and Brown's notes. Simpson speaks in voices that are lined with pain and hardened with experience, breathing life into actual stories from women in the war who have fallen victim to sexual harassment, witnessed death and left their families behind to join the troops.
This controversial subject matter has, unsurprisingly, incited controversial reactions. ""Overall, (the reception to the play has been) really warm,"" Bowden says. ""One female vet said she came expecting propaganda and found truth, pure and simple. She and others have experienced some healing by seeing their experiences acted out on stage … And, we piss a lot of folks off. It does not clearly speak out against the evil military-industrial complex; it is anti-military because many of the stories are difficult or horrific; it is not pro-peace enough because there are points of view that seem to glorify war. We did not create a polemic and are not interested in preaching to the choir.""
Both Bowden and Simpson are fiercely committed to preventing the play from being colored by any personal political bias. Though she is a long-standing, proud pacifist, Simpson wanted to maintain the integrity, realism and strong sense of individual identity of each woman's character. ""I can't have a political agenda other than, as a feminist, that all women's voices need to be heard and that the stories in the play are important,"" Simpson says.
Setting ""Coming in Hot"" apart is not only its layered and emotional intimacy, but also what comes after. Rather than simply drawing the curtain and allowing the contents of the pieces to settle into the audience's skin, ""Coming in Hot"" is followed by a Q&A; and discussion session with the play's patrons, which is why Kore Press calls the performance a civil discourse series rather than just a play.
Simpson, who has a son currently stationed in Afghanistan, is new to this experience herself. ""This is part of the beautiful paradox of this work,"" she says. ""There is no distance between me and the audience. It's an extremely intimate experience and going directly into discussion keeps the immediacy of the material present. It is happening now. Women are experiencing the same things right at that moment — every moment — every day. It's personal for all of us.""
This same sense of intimacy pervades Kore Press itself. Kore is a tight-knit and tenacious force that was co-founded in 1993 by Bowden and local poet Karen Falkenstrom. Bowden and Falkenstrom wanted to fill the gaping niche where women's literature is starkly absent.
""I remember distinctly after I graduated from college, feeling that I had to do something about the fact that there were too few women writers … I was mad about that and curious about how to change that on a larger scale,"" Bowden says. Her passion has driven the company for the past 17 years, during which they have published more than 60 original works. Kore Press operates as a decidedly feminist publishing company, with no subtlety about its mission.
This outstanding perseverance and fervent adherence to convictions, though, has not been without adversity. Bowden has been ostracized for the small size of Kore, the fact that it is run by women and the literature they choose to publish. ""Not being part of the dominant discourse style allows for holes to be punched more often into your arguments,"" Bowden says.
Like the stories that make up Powder, Kore Press seeks out innovative, fresh and challenging material by women they feel need to be heard and publicly discussed. Bowden says she is constantly seeking ""to contribute to the larger genre-, gender- and aesthetic-bending conversations,"" not only through publishing, but also by expanding Kore Press' repertoire through after-school writing programs for young students. The publishing company is a vigilant warrior for exposing harsh truths and realities specific to women and the struggle that is persistent even today. ""Coming in Hot"" is a genuine exemplification of this mantra. Even though she is working in a profession and niche that is constantly facing adversity, Bowden is optimistic and unyielding in her passion.
""You (have to) make the fight part of what you do and don't expect things to be otherwise,"" she says. ""Except that part of the deal is to constantly transform situations, in your mind and in your playing field.""
""Coming in Hot"" has its first performance on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at Marana High School.