When most people think about war, their imaginations tend to lead them to the traditional sense – old and middle-aged men and women in Brooks Brother’s suits sitting in the House chamber making proclamations of war, the president reciting a skillfully prepared address to the American people describing why we must plunge into a conflict, young men and women in fatigues flying off to foreign lands, carrying the fears, pride and sometimes anger of a nation square across their shoulders all while preparing to face death daily. But what if the war is not being waged in humid jungles or blistering deserts, what if the battleground lies within?
A soldier’s job is not to ask why, theirs but to do and die. But what if you cannot relegate yourself to be a weapon of destruction killing on the government’s command? What if the word “why “echoes in your head until the sound replaces a soldier’s instinct to act without question?
Opposing fractions gripping and ripping at one’s soul can be just as deleterious and exhausting as watching for landmines or dodging bullets. Former Lance Corporal Jeff Key was already at war when he was flying off to Iraq to strike as our sword of vengeance for the attacks of 9/11 and liberate our country and indeed the world from terror-mongers like Saddam Hussein. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy instituted under President Clinton forced a soldier to betray his existence. The propaganda President Bush used to invade Iraq forced a soldier to betray his oath. What to do? Keep a descriptive journal and transform it into a robust, introspective one-man stage production.
There is no doubt that the American public was inundated with images, video streams and commentary from the Iraq War. It was like a soap opera “As the War Turns” or a Sony Playstation videogame, only this version had real casualties. Using photos he took and the illumination of his rhythmical verse, Key’s narrative transports the audience into the Iraq War in a more intimate way than CNN and other network’s daily updates ever did. The Eyes of Babylon is a spellbinding 90-minute monologue that is real soldier’s story instead of a manufactured segment of media. Told with humor and conviction, Key relates a story with his Alabama/Forrest Gump accent that displays pure emotion. He takes the audience on a journey that begins with 9/11 and ends with him coming out as a gay man on CNN. Along this journey Key communicates the feeling of connecting with the universe’s most insignificant creatures, the eroticism of a subtle shared moment with a gay Iraqi man, the joy for simple pleasures such as the soundtrack from Rent that allowed him to mentally venture off from the state he was currently in, the realities of how soldiers shower and move their bowels in combat situations, the brutality of soldiers with a hard on to get their gun off and his growing abhorrence for the war he was sent to.
The words of this warrior poet are as powerful as a M16 with a full clip and no less haunting than a wolf howling at the full moon. I was beyond transfixed; I hung on to every word that flowed from his lips like a recruit swinging on an immense set of monkey bars. Key was my sergeant and it was up to me to follow his guidance and make the links until I had finished the task, feeling better for going through the exercise with him. Key is truthful and is the personification of the Marine term “Semper Fi”. Always faithful, Key demonstrates what it means to be a true patriot all while changing conventional paradigms of the expression. This production is a significant piece of theatre – it is Off-Broadway’s To Hell and Back. Exchanging a rifle and assault vehicle for a pen and stage Key is more formidable. Using his weapon to the fullest, The Eyes of Babylon challenges the status quo, flips them the bird and gives them a salute at the same time. Key is mercenary for those who have known little mercy, for those who are used by this government and forgotten about like cracked egg shells after the omelets has been cooked and you best believe he will go down with his boots on.
The Eyes of Babylon is not just a gay man’s account of his stint in the military during wartime. It is a story every military person can relate to. A person joins the military for different reasons. When he spoke I felt the presence of my friend that gave the ultimate sacrifice in a gun battle in Iraq, a man that joined the military to provide a better life for his two sons, a man whose beautiful face I will never see again. On a personal note, this production was closure for me. I want thank Key for sharing his story. I was so angry upon hearing of my friend’s death, knowing that he lost his life without any of his friends or family around as he made his transition plagued my heart. But after viewing The Eyes of Babylon I realized that he was surrounded with love from his fellow brethren and if he passed serving with anyone like Key, he was never alone. I salute you Jeff Key for a job well done.
Photos courtesy of The Mehadi Foundation