“Port Chicago 50” played at the National Black Theatre at 125th Street and 5th Avenue and told the story of the 200 Black sailors who died in explosions on naval ships on a July evening in 1944. Co-writers of the play, Dennis Rowe and David Shackelford, wanted to let everyone know that this event occurred. It is something that is not taught in the history books, but it needs to be. This play clearly shares the stories of some of these Black sailors—not just some of the ones who lost their lives, but the sailors who survived.
The sailors lost their lives because the Navy did not train them how to load dangerous explosives. Then, on top of them having to do this, the white officers and the white commander had them racing to see who could load the ships quicker. These sailors were degraded, called “nigger,” “coon” and other terrible names.
Rowe and Shackelford made sure that the audience got to know these men, what their life struggles were like and how despite the constant disrespect, these men kept working as sailors to support their families. This play is a tribute to what these men endured, and it is a respectful way of acknowledging their place in history.
Freddie Meeks is the main character: a sailor and a survivor played by Shackelford. The older Freddie Meeks was portrayed by Hal Williams. Between Shackelford and Williams, they captured this man’s frustrations, anger, pride, dignity and strength. Meeks was also one among 50 sailors to refuse to go back to loading the ships without being trained. They were arrested, charged with mutiny and put in prison. These sailors were beaten in prison and disgraced. Meeks was the only one of the 50 sailors to receive a pardon from former President Bill Clinton.
Through this play, audiences had the chance to experience the humiliation that these sailors endured on an everyday basis. The audience got to hear the frustrations they faced as they were overworked, disrespected and terrified moving dangerous explosives without proper training. What struck me sitting in the audience was the disgusting, nasty way that the Captain commanding these sailors viewed everything. He did not care at all that the sailors were not trained and that what they were doing was dangerous. In fact, he didn’t feel that Black men deserved to be in the Navy. He felt they were beneath the white officers and sailors. What is truly disturbing is that when the explosions occurred, the Black officers could not grieve—they were made to immediately clean up their follow sailors’ body parts.
A play like this—that vividly demonstrates the racism, hatred and cruelty to Blacks by the government—is very timely when you look at our society today. There is so much racism that still exists in so many aspects of Black people’s lives. The ensemble cast powerfully made you experience the horror which these sailors and the local Black townspeople knew. They made you feel the pain and the anger. The ensemble included Anika C. McFall, Harry Fowler, Matt Jennings, Oren Williams, Izzy Dixon, CJ Dickinson, Daphne Danielle, William Jousset, Ryan Franks, Darrell Philip and Howard Lockie. Everything was stunningly brought together by the precise direction of Rowe.
I hope that this production can find a venue to mount again. The only thing that I would like to see is that the venue is adequate enough to allow the three sets to be used onstage at the same time and focused on by a spotlight, or that the sets are on a revolving stage. Having to make set changes was a little distracting when following the story.