Tracing the Tale of Tracers

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John DiFusco in "The Long Way Home"

I thought that we deserved more.  That was the seed for creating the play.

After my discharge from the United States military, I came to LA, went to college on the GI bill, and became involved in the theater scene. At a party one night, I met another veteran and we found ourselves talking about the war. The old joke is that Vietnam veterans all have their “own” Vietnams.  This guy was angry, bitter, and he told me how he felt he had been duped into something.  All those John Wayne and Audie Murphy (To Hell and Back) movies had made him look at war in an unrealistic way.  As his anger grew, he ripped his shirt open to reveal five bullet scars, saying “they shot the fuck out of me!”

John DiFusco

I gave the guy a ride home that night and he continued to rant.  After dropping him off, I could just feel his anger possess me, my own bitterness welling, and I found myself speeding up”¦over a 50-foot embankment.

One of the policemen on the scene shoved me in the squad car and asked “Why the hell did you do that?” I didn’t know. “I just got back from Vietnam,” I told him, “maybe that had something to do with it?”  He said, “oh, so that’s your problem.”

That experience decades ago made me know that we, as veterans — we are more than this! It was really the seed for the Tracers story.  You carry it with you.  It never goes away. I remember having the distinctive feeling that we were going to end up being the forgotten veterans.

At the same time, I was working as an actor and director in Los Angeles.  I was able to create theater from this dramatic war experience.  Tracers was first done at the Odyssey Theatre with a cast of veterans.  We had to give tickets away because nobody was interested.  It was a “confessional” event, about a brutally controversial war.  But it quickly seemed to become a chance for people to connect with veterans, and to welcome us home.

The cast of the 1984 West Coast premiere of "Tracers"

After a successful run at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, I formed a liaison with Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater company (VETCo) — a group of veterans in New York. That’s how I met Tom Bird, who introduced me to the New York Public Theater’s Joseph Papp.  We made a handshake deal, and I directed the six-month run of Tracers at the Public Theater with a cast of veterans from the LA and NY group. At the height of the veterans’ movement, we became the artistic arm.  We were honored to receive so many awards and subsequent productions of the play.  This experience set the stage for my satisfying, decades-long career as a writer, director, and actor.

The Long Way Home –Reflections on the Tracers Journey is a meditation on how all that happened.  How theater can be “healing” as well as entertaining.

John DiFusco and Al.Keith in "The Long Way Home"

About a year ago I met Keith Jeffreys, founder of the US Veterans Artists Alliance.   I was very impressed with Keith’s dedication to nurturing and promoting Veteran Artists — and because I was a founding member of Rogue Machine, it seemed natural to try to get the two groups together.  Luckily John Flynn agreed to direct, and Al Keith has brought his brilliant musical talent to the project. I hope it’s historical, entertaining, and educational at the same time.

In 1980, when I created the first version, I thought, “We’ll do this for six or eight weeks and get it off our chests.”  Little did I know that it would take over my life. You carry it with you.  It never goes away.

The Long Way Home – Reflections on the Tracers Journey, presented by Rogue Machine and United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance. USVAA Theater, AMVETS Post II Building, 10858 Culver Blvd. Culver City, 90230.  Opens Saturday.  Fri-Sat 8 pm. Through November 24.  Tickets: $22.50.  Veterans attend free of charge, students and seniors $14. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 855-585-5185.

***All The Long Way Home – Reflection of the Tracers Journey production photos by John Flynn

John DiFusco is a writer/actor/director who has been the recipient of a New York Drama Desk Award as well as  LADCC, LA Weekly, NAACP Theatre, Drama-Logue, and Valley Theatre League awards.  He began his professional career at the Odyssey Theatre, and has appeared in numerous productions around the world.  His play Tracers was published as one of “The Ten Best of 85/86.”  John has toured extensively and internationally with the play, which continues to be produced globally.  Locally, he has directed numerous plays including Hair, White People, Avenue X, Joan and the Zulus, Just A Song at Twilight, Will Strip for Food, Ali, and Rounds. In addition, he appeared in all three plays of Jovanka Bach’s Balkan Trilogy, and Murray Mednick’s Charles’ Story. His many solo performances include his autobiographical piece, Walk’n thru the Fire, which made LA Weekly’s Ten Best of the Year list. DiFusco received the USAF Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service in Vietnam.

John DiFusco

John DiFusco