The Double V (review excerpt)
As a card-carrying historian, I had known the meaning of the term “the Double V” for decades. But I did not know much about how it came to be. This play explains it all—and better, dramatizes it with wholly believable characters and imagined scenes.
In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on the Axis powers. Almost overnight, America went into full wartime mobilization. As a long-simmering remnant of slavery, Jim Crow racism seemed such an inevitable and ineradicable piece of the American fabric, that its continuance during the war crisis did not even appear to be problematic. This was a “white man’s war.” As elsewhere in society, no Negroes need apply. Young Black men eager to serve their country were turned down at enlistment stations.
Enter James G. Thompson (Preston Butler, III), a 26-year-old Black man from Wichita, Ks., who, according to the play, with a little help from his girlfriend penned a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, on January 31, 1942. In it, he asked a number of pertinent questions:
“Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?
“Is the kind of America I know worth defending? Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war? Will colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past?”
Thompson went on to propose an answer to these questions:
“The ‘V for Victory’ sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny. If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict then let colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory—The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies within.”
And so was ignited a great new phase of the ongoing Black civil rights movement.
The Pittsburgh Courier played this idea up big, urging other Black media across the country to pick it up. Players in baseball’s Negro League sported the VV insignia on their uniforms. Leaders in the Black community instinctively recognized that World War II military service, with its honors, sacrifices, glory, and benefits, would contribute significantly to a renewed commitment to equality that had been stalled ever since the end of Reconstruction.
It was not all smooth sailing, however. Reactionary forces also saw the potential for uplift to the Black American cause and exerted themselves mightily to halt it. A couple of short but powerful scenes take place when the crusading editor Ira Lewis (Nic Few) is paid a visit by FBI agent William Taylor (John Apicella) who, under authority of J. Edgar Hoover, threatens severe punishment under the War Powers Act for disseminating divisive stories meant to break American unity around the war.
Though Thompson wrote the letter from which the Double V campaign grew, it’s Ira Lewis and his girlfriend, cub reporter Madge Evans (Brie Eley), who anchor the drama. Other characters are Thompson’s girlfriend/later fiancée Annie Culver (Terra Strong Lyons) and his father Clem (Cary Thompson), who also plays a Courier staff member.
Jamal Henderson plays a couple of smaller roles, and Joe Coffey plays the appropriately named Charlie Simpson, plant foreman where Jimmy works and an unabashed out-and-out racist and likely a Klansman.
The scenes alternate between Pittsburgh and Wichita.
Although there are only two roles for women in the play, they are strong ones. The playwright has a gift for expressing how personal plans and dreams must necessarily be put on hold until the war is over, underlining how no one’s life went untouched by the mobilization. She also folds in the picture of discrimination against Black Americans on the job and within the unions.
Before too long, the U.S. government and military came to its senses and started allowing Blacks into the service. A demand that arose in the course of the campaign not only for admission but for proportional representation, i.e., about 10%, was never met as such, although the playwright claims it was in the WACS. Nevertheless, over a million Black Americans did serve, including over 6000 Black women, and that led to greater benefits in the years to come.
It’s not specifically stated in the play, but the military probably believed it would use Black soldiers for the duration, and all would return to “normal” after the war. In many places it did—which Black servicemen certainly noticed when they returned in uniform to their home states in the South. The Double V campaign set the stage for Truman’s 1948 order to fully integrate the armed services, and for the greater civil rights victories to come in the 1950s and 60s.
Speaking of setting the stage, John Iacovelli’s scenic design is spot-on. The audience feels right in the middle of the action, inside the Thompson home, the Pittsburgh Courier office, and a Cessna airplane factory. Jared A. Sayeg provides a well thought-out lighting design, and Dana Rebecca Woods provides authentic period costuming. Projections by Fritz Davis update us on the progress of the war, accompanied by the music preparation and sound design by Christopher Moscatiello.
The playwright herself is a figure of some interest. Carole Eglash-Kosoff previously wrote the multi-award-winning play When Jazz Had the Blues. She has also published five books and wrote and directed an award-winning short documentary. In 2006, she traveled to South Africa to teach in the black townships; from that experience emerged her book, The Human Spirit–Apartheid’s Unheralded Heroes, which was later produced as a play. Her historical fiction novel When Stars Align dealt with the love of a mixed-race boy and a white girl in the turbulent era after the Civil War, and a follow-up novel, Winds of Change, continued that saga.
In an ideal world, The Double V would be produced by regional theatre companies and high school and college theatre programs all over the country as a staple in the American dramatic canon. It needs to be seen. – Eric A. Gordon
The Double V plays at Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90046, through Sun., Nov. 24. Performances are on Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., and Sun. at 3 p.m. With one intermission, it runs 100 minutes. Tickets and further information can be had at (323) 960-7776 or at this website.