A real discovery is the Egyptian Arena Theatre, which sits behind its opulent big brother, Grauman’s Egyptian movie theater, at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Las Palmas. The movie theater, known for its festivals and revivals of classic films that are usually hosted by their stars, literally overshadows the small theater out back.
But the intimacy of the Arena Theatre gives it much of its charm. There’s something comforting about such a humble abode – it gives you the feeling that all the hype is somewhere else, and that here some serious work will be done in the service of the dramatic arts. The theater is small but comfortable, with a workshop feel that gives spectators the sense of being immersed in the work with the actors.
The current production at the Arena Theatre is a case in point. As a dramatic experience, playwright Tom Cole’s “Medal of Honor Rag” excels in its gradual build-up of tension between a mental ward therapist and his Vietnam vet patient. The patient is D.J. Jackson and, as played by veteran rapper/actor Heavy D, he is a powerhouse of both strength and inner torment – a sensitive and tortured soul who can become a raging beast if provoked.
Based on a true story, D.J. Jackson was on a tank crew in Nam and killed some 20 Vietcong during an ambush in which all the other members of his crew were killed. Suffering from survivor’s guilt, Jackson returns home to be a recluse, until he is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – an event which exacerbates his sense of guilt, and precipitates him into a mental ward. In the ward, he rejects treatment until his therapist, played by Paul Schackman, shares secrets about his own past that allow Jackson to drop his defenses and begin to reveal the reasons for his pain and guilt.
It’s hard not to think that Heavy D and director Delroy Lindo are commenting on today’s Iraq conflict, and the repercussions we will experience stateside once all the troops return. Post traumatic shock, battle fatigue, and shellshock are conditions once considered signs of cowardice (see Kubrick’s Paths of Glory for evidence of this). John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light, which showed actual traumatic shock victims of WW2, was banned from distribution by the U.S. government. And even today, television news shies away from showing combat footage, as it did so abundantly during the Vietnam era. War affects a generation until that generation dies, hence the relevancy of the play, which debuted in the early ’80s. Even its Woodstock-era music by Country Joe and the Fish still has a contemporary ring, because the problems of Vietnam are still with us, just as the problems of the Iraq conflict will be with us long after Bush Jr. decides to call it quits.
Egyptian Arena Theatre is located at 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., in Hollywood. Show times: Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Price: $30. Tickets are available at www.heavyd.org or by calling The HerShe Group at (323) 650-3100.