The next staging by People Productions will be George Brant’s Grounded at the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse (132 South, 800 West), Thursdays through Sundays, April 14-24.  Artistic Director Richard Scharine saw the play two years in the 75 seat Gate Theatre, which sits on top of a London pub.  By last spring it was at New York’s Public Theatre, starring Anne Hathaway, as directed by Julie Taymor. Now it’s reached the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Grounded is a one actor show about a woman who makes it in a man’s world, as an F-16 fighter pilot.  She is a woman, however, and when she gets pregnant—albeit by the right guy, resulting in a baby girl she loves—her career is seemingly over, but our story is just beginning.  She’s promoted/demoted to the “Chairforce,” flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (AKA “drones”), the new standard of military usefulness.  Brant, who’s Elephant’s Graveyard received a beautiful production at Westminster a couple of years ago, puts his finger on America’s—and the world’s—ambivalence about the use of drones.  On one level it deals with our revulsion toward the endless wars that seem to be so much of our country’s recent experience:  (1) “The threat of death has been removed” for the pilot.  (2) There is no separation between the Home Front and the Battlefield.  (We will learn that this is not as advantageous as it appears.)  Our pilot spends half her day in a Las Vegas suburb home with her husband and daughter, and half in a Quonset hut an hour south into the Nevada desert, watching on a television screen the images generated by the cameras on a Reaper above another desert halfway around the world.  (3) Her targets are not the anonymous residents, military or civilian, of a country with which we happen to be at war, but as her commander explains it:  “You’ll be hunting down the real bad guys, conducting personality strikes.”

Nonetheless, these truths have a less savory underbelly.  At what point does “combat” become jihad?  What is the difference between a “personality strike” and an assassination?  Is there dishonor in killing with a bomb under a car in a marketplace, and honor in killing with a heat-seeking missile from on high?  If “the threat of death has been removed,” what is the difference between a “top gun” and a cold-blooded killer?  Furthermore, if “there is no separation between the Home Front and the Battlefield” on one side of the world, how can there be a separation on the other?

There’s more.  The pilot doesn’t choose her targets anymore.  She has a team—“analysts, advisers, JAGs”—which exists only in her headset, but which makes all the decisions about life and death.  They watch from above with her, but they are the God who decides guilt and innocence.  She is only their tool—a tool without choice, but not without culpability.  And the targets are not the only ones being watched.  She too is being evaluated and judged as dutiful or unreliable, innocent or guilty.

And we are being watched as well.  We don’t need Eric Snowden or Chelsea Manning to tell us this.  All we need look at is the security cameras in Walmart.  We are being watched, and will one day be called to Judgement.  We may call the watcher the NSA (or FBI, CIA, KGB, or GOD), but along with our pilot, we may disappear into a cell without windows, or a gray puff of smoke on a television screen.


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