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Arts and Entertainment

From the Indecency of Prejudice, the Narratives of "Camp Logan" at LATC Recount Extraordinary Events

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Celeste Bedford Walker's fascinating drama, Camp Logan, is playing at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC). Walker resurrects the racially-charged 1917 Camp Logan Riots in Houston, Texas from the perspective of the involved mutineers of the 24th Infantry. The Robey Theatre Company production features intense performances, sharp direction, knowing dialogue and excellent period details that culminate into a vivid recreation of a moment of historical significance.

Like the numerous riots that have occurred in Los Angeles, the Camp Logan Riot (also known as the Houston Riot of 1917) involved mounting group tension, racially-motivated discrimination, and an abuse of power by uniformed authority. Struggles between the involved parties -- the soldiers of the all African-American Third Battalion of the 24th Army Infantry and the local white police force -- began shortly after the soldiers were stationed at Camp Logan. Despite their exemplary record of military service, the 24th Infantry was not respectfully welcomed by many of the white residents.

The long-standing climate of Houston's institutionalized and blatant racism quickly revealed itself to the visiting soldiers until a violent final-straw event emerged: On August 23, the Houston police stormed into an African-American woman's house and without citing cause for arrest, drug her without clothing on to her front lawn and proceeded to beat her in front of her five young children. A soldier from the 24th Infantry stepped forward to inquire as to why the woman was being beaten, but the police began to beat him too, later charging the soldier with interfering with an arrest.

Later that evening, an all-out race riot ensued. A mob of armed white civilians and police fought against 156 soldiers from the 24th Infantry throughout the evening. By the time the fighting dwindled down, 20 people, including soldiers, policemen, and civilians, has been killed. A military courts-martial resulted in the death penalty for 19 of the involved soldiers plus life imprisonment sentences for 41 members of the 24th Infantry.

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Wallace's Camp Logan is full of richly-crafted, touching, and earnest narratives that serve as a humanizing anchor to the off-the-handle discrimination depicted in the play. She uses typical men and everyday encounters as a vehicle to recount extraordinary events borne out of the common indecency of prejudice. Wallace's grasp of realistic male dialogue is amazingly insightful, devoid of cliché, and beautifully balanced through unique character portraits that work in sonorous tandem.

The ensemble cast of Camp Logan is a spirited, stage-commanding bunch that offers contagious, audience-energizing effervescence. Each performer artfully transforms their characters from boyish, care-free guys into proud, action-ready men tired of suffering disrespectful racist indignities. Lee Stansberry has this awesome Wilford Brimley thing going on as he molds the role of Sergeant McKinney out of controlled gruffness and particularly empathic, stinging subtlety. The animated Sammie Wayne (as Gweely Brown) and Bill Lee Brown (as Joe Moses) work together to bring invigorating comic relief to the play and beautifully implied inherent wisdom to their roles. The raw complexity of tapped syrup comes to mind regarding Dorian C. Baucum's portrayal of Louisiana Creole hailing, post trauma-suffering Private Boogaloosa. Dwain A. Perry blends embittered fortitude with refined optimism to cement Military Police Officer Robert Franciscus. As the high-achieving, but naive Private Hardin, Kaylon Hunt cloaks his role both in sweetness and remorse. Tasked with being the hypocritical bad guy, Jacob Sidney plays Officer Zuelke with careful foreboding and an undercurrent of foreshadowing uneasiness. Under the direction of Alex Morris, Camp Logan is a well-orchestrated measure of strategic and exciting story-telling. Morris pulls the audience deep into the emotional, potent crux of the Camp Logan Riots. Staging elements by Rodney Rincon and Phil Buono (set design) and Naila A. Sanders (costuming) brim with excellent period details.

Camp Logan is playing through May 27. Tickets are $20 to $30 and available online or via phone at 866-811-4111.

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