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“This is Ambo Land,” the reporter tells the audience at the outset of the play “How I Got That Story.”

“It’s not the safest place right now.”

He’s right. Writing the play in 1979, playwright Amlin Gray based his fictional Ambo Land on Vietnam, a place rife with military history.

Gray’s story of a place that’s “not the safest” isn’t the only one on display right now.

To help both the actors and the theater-goers understand the emotional impact experienced by the characters, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company asked combat veterans to share their stories via posts on YouTube. Some of these clips air while audience members find their seats before the play, adding a sense of reality to what actors Brian Bielawski and Greg Watanabe are about to portray, and showing a sign of respect to veterans.

We’ve been following the play behind the scenes as Opening Night nears, watching as Mo’olelo makes an effort to include veterans groups in its preparations. The theater is known for making connections to communities that might not otherwise be inclined to attending theater, and this time veterans have been the focus.

Ernie D’Leon, a Vietnam veteran who also helped the cast and crew block scenes authentically, remembers when two soldiers sacrificed themselves to protect him and the feelings that have stayed with him since.

“You come back with the shame and the guilt thing,” he said in the clip below. “I served my country honorably and I did some fantastic things. I’m sure I saved lives. But those aren’t the things you remember. The things you remember are the atrocities. The ugly stuff. The things that haunt you.”

Here’s D’Leon:

Dennis Bates, another veteran, explains his physical and emotional journey to war, starting with boarding the plane that would transport him and his fellow soldiers.

“(I was) alone and unprepared with orders that made no sense,” he recalled. “And there was no one to answer my questions. … My mind was all over the place. What did I know about war? Oh, there were the incessant news reports, death tolls, etc.”

Garry Prather then talks about what happens after vets return, and the troubles of assimilating back to American life after experiencing the horrors of the Vietnam War. He even discloses one memory of pulling a solider out of a tank only to discover half of his skull missing.

“I don’t have a lot of answers,” Prather said. “I have a lot of questions, which I think is typical of the veteran that went to Vietnam. He’s still questioning a lot of things that we have to do in order to live in this country. On the other hand, on an individual basis, it’s a lot of load to carry.”

Hearing these real stories from the veterans allows the actors to tie their performances to real experiences, Watanabe said.

“Especially with the nature of this particular play which has a lot of satire in it, which has a lot of broad comedy to make its more pointed points, it’s very important to stay strongly tethered to that very real and — harsh is the only other word that I would think of — very real human experience that this is based on.”

Here’s Watanabe (warning: There is a short technical glitch in this clip):

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Allie Daugherty reports on arts for You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5665.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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