Jeffrey Wright, photographed by Jill Greenberg. Learn more about Jill's work and her initiative, Alreadymade., to hire more female photographers at jillgreenberg.com. (jillgreenberg.com)

Jeffrey Wright on veterans and mental health: "We have a lot of work to do"

Salon talks to the acclaimed actor and collaborator April Harris about their new HBO doc "We Are Not Done Yet"


D. Watkins
November 12, 2018 8:00PM (UTC)
This article was co-produced with Original Thinkers, an annual ideas festival in Telluride, Colorado that brings speakers, art and filmmakers together to create new paradigms. Original Thinkers logo

“Support the troops!” is phrase heard often in America, and not only from politicians and government officials. But there are has tens of thousands of homeless American vets, and a larger number who are clearly suffering from trauma and PTSD stemming from their service want to be helped, but may never be treated. “Support the troops!” sounds great, but what does that support look like, and will it ever happen? Acclaimed actor Jeffrey Wright (recently, of HBO's "Westworld") teamed up with 26-year Army veteran April Harris to deliver a first look at the many complex problems our veterans face in their new HBO film “We Are Not Done Yet.”

Directed by Sareen Hairabedian, produced by Wright and featuring Harris, "We Are Not Done Yet" follows ten U.S. veterans and active duty service members who come together at the USO Warrior and Family Center in Bethesda, MD, for a writing workshop led by poet Seema Reza of Community Building Art Works, with the purpose of using words to heal the trauma that comes with service.

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Harris and Wright sat down with me last week to introduce the film, currently airing on HBO, and talk about meaningful ways to "support the troops" beyond rhetoric.

The writing [by the veterans involved with the program] is beyond beautiful. I teach an MFA program, so I get to say that. It's beautiful. How did you get involved with the project?

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Jeffrey Wright: Over time I became increasingly curious about veteran's issues. From certain experiences that I had, relationships that I built with some former senior officers in the U.S. Army, both of whom were Vietnam veterans, we ended up starting a foundation together doing work in Sierra Leone.

The first time I went there was during a cease fire in the middle of that war. And going to a war zone just kind of shattered some complacency in me. Things around security and around the people who take up the call to restore order when security falls away. All of these things just combine to lead me to be a little more curious. A little more sensitive.

I was doing a group of readings called "Theater of War." There's a guy named Bryan Doerries who started it, to have conversations around PTSD as they relate to the Greek tragedies, using stories of Ajax, for example, who comes back from war and goes on this psychotic episode. Bryan's argument is that's the Greeks examining PTSD in a way that we don't in our society. So there are a number of things that led me to it.

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We did one of these readings in Washington, D.C. There were some representatives from the Pentagon there. I asked, "Is there any way I can get more deeply involved? Is there anything I can do?" And I got a call a few weeks later introducing me to Seema Reza, who leads these workshops. She said that one of the vets want to do a staged reading of collective poems that they were working on, and asked me if I would come down and direct them through that. And I said, yes, and the film was born out of that.

Wow. And how'd you feel when you guys first met? Were you already a fan of his work?

April Harris: I didn't know who Wright was. But once I figured out who he was, I'll be in his shadow, bless my heart. The thing was, when Seema contacted me and said, would you come do the work? Even if President Obama had been there, I would've been focused on doing my work. I'm in the position now where I'm addicted to healing. I want to be a better woman, a better mother, and so I came to do the work. So I was really focused. But then once I realized who he was, I was star-struck.

But he gave us the space to come in and do the work. It wasn't about Wright, it wasn't about any of the vets. It was just about a group of people coming to do the work.

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You seem like a natural teacher. Have you taught before?

Wright: I've got kids. They teach me more than I teach them sometimes. But I've always appreciated and enjoyed working with other actors. I've done a few workshops, directed some smaller things here and there. It's one of the things I look forward to doing in the future more, is working with people around whether it's through directing or teaching. I enjoy that process. But you were talking about the poetry, and the beauty of this work. That's all down to them, you know? The one thing that so impressed me about them and made it all the more easier to work with, was that they were, one, committed to the process. And I discovered these are incredible artists. You know? And incredibly disciplined too, as you would expect from the military. So you give them the direction and they do it.

Once we get over a couple hurdles, they say, hey that's what I like, how about we go and do this, OK. But that happens when you work on any project, you have to problem solve. But at the core, them as communicators and writers is what really brings the power of this film to the forefront. And it's what made the event that we pulled off in January 2017 all the more powerful. They're incredibly expressive, incredibly poetic, clear, and they bring the fire of the truth to the moment through those words.

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Harris, you served for 26 years, right?

Harris: I did.

When you look at the military and how we promote the military, and then you get a chance to see how so many of our men and women in service are living once they become vets, do you think America loves the troops? Every politician says it, everybody blows it up on TV, but then I know there's an estimated tens of thousands of homeless vets in this country, which is mind blowing to me.

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Harris: Right. I think we served a purpose. And once you server the purpose, and I hate to say forgotten, but definitely placed to the side. So what I would like to do, and it's a call to action to my brothers and sisters out there. We can't wait for institutions and policies to change. They need to change. I believe they are trying to change. But that's going to happen over a long period of time. Right now I can reach back to my brothers and sisters because I'm in a good place. Reach back and provide some assistance. And I think we can do that for one another right now. Because we are in a bad space, but I think waiting for institutions to change, politicians to change, I think we just don't have that amount of time.

But that's part of what you get when you sign up, right? 

Harris: We should get that. Things have changed though, we hadn't been in war in how long?

Wright: Two decades now.

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Harris:  Yeah. I mean we just weren't prepared for the aftermath. We were focused on going in there and taking care of business and keeping our country safe. And how long had it been before we had some action on our side of the world? So I think it took us by storm, I think we weren't properly prepared. And definitely not prepared for the aftermath. But I think us coming together, us as veterans, opening up our hearts and letting people know what's going on, and helping others to understand where we're stand. I think we can make this happen. As America we can come together.

Harris: It's not them and us. It's us together.

Wright: That's what I love about this project, is to your point. We hear a lot of chatter about the vets and about the troops, but we rarely hear from the troops themselves. The vets themselves. And to be a part of a project that allows them space to be heard, it's gratifying for me and also really necessary for our country that it be taken in.

That's why I said it's so important, because you don't only get the artwork, but you get those personal stories to see the struggle, you know, juxtaposed against what politicians always say, the talking points that I think so many of us are tired of.

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Wright: Even, for example, at the Medal of Honor ceremonies at the White House, which I always find so moving, you know? You hear the stories of what these folks have done, the valor, the courage. But even then, you don't hear from them. It's somebody reading a citation, it describes what they've done, and then the president comes over and does his business. And they stand silently. So I think if we can hear directly from the vets themselves, and I'm really excited that we have a lot of veterans coming into the House of Representatives now. I think we, as Harris says, might start to see some institutional change.

Well you guys were happy with the end results [Tuesday].

Wright: Well we're talking about our film right now.

Harris: I do want to say that as a leader, and retired or not I will always be a leader, I have a responsibility to those that are coming in the future, those that are still there, and those that I served with. And my piece was called, "My Sister Story." And I would never disrespect any of my brothers or sisters by trying to communicate their story. But what I noticed traveling across the country and meeting the veterans in different spaces, is that our pain is the same. It doesn't matter the circumstances in which got us there, the pain is the same.

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And so I called my piece here, "My Sister Story." So I'm speaking on the behalf of many of my sisters. And you see me sitting here, and I got this opportunity. But trust and believe that I'm sitting her for the thousands that don't have the voice.

Your story's very compelling. We're not going to give too much of it away, because we want people to see this story, but personally I want to ask you, was it difficult for you saying that? And talking about it on camera?

Harris: I had been on stage previously, and did my story. And I think I even talk about the time that my two sons, I have two adult sons that were in the audience, and to see them be so proud of me standing up there, and speaking my truth, and knowing that people aren't going to be ashamed of me. But it woulda killed me if I had to have kept the truth inside. I need to speak —

It's part of the healing.

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Harris: Man, it's part of that healing. It was so cathartic it's unbelievable.

So, both of you guys alluded to this, so I just want to ask it outright: it seems like we're at a time where our country is starting to take issues dealing with mental health more seriously. Do you think we're finally getting it right? Do you think we're on the right path?

Wright: Well, as relates to the veteran’s issue, I think we have a lot of work to do. I think as Harris described, there's institutional lag, there's policy lag, and you see this as a generational thing. You know, going back to the Vietnam vets, the World War II vets was a little bit of different situation, but certainly starting with Vietnam, leading to now. You don't see that there has been the progress that one would expect, given the rhetoric toward our vets that politicians often serve us with.

So as relates to the vets, there's a lot of work to do. And again, Harris says, they're not waiting for anybody to come to their rescue. They look after one another and that's what we see in this film, and what so impressed me about them. The thing that I didn't really appreciate as fully is that code in the military of looking out for one another, they carry on to this process of healing. So they talk as much about their own healing as they do about their brothers and sisters.

So ideally with this film it can reach out to more. And maybe open up some other folks who had shut down. And even reach beyond that theater, out into some other corners of the country.

Doing the real work. Harris, if I'm a soldier and I just got my papers and my time is up and I'm coming back into the regular world and I suffer from PTSD, what should I be doing? Take us through that journey.

Harris: First and foremost you've gotta seek some help. I say that we as veterans need to be as open and honest with our families as we can because we have some phenomenal families that are standing by us, but we're hard to deal with. When we're in denial we're even harder to deal with. Go out there and get you some help, but take your family to the counseling meetings with you. We gotta get our families involved and get them educated on how to deal with what we're doing.

My children thought I hated them for many years. And it was that aggressiveness, it was that anger, it was a misunderstanding about what was going on with me. But once I got educated and I educated my children, now we can begin to heal together. And they’re not naive, they're not ignorant about mental health, I have it. I'm still a phenomenal woman. I'm still their mother. But for a long time I didn't feel like that. I felt like I wasn't worthy. And I begin to heal like that. I can't even communicate when I'm like that.

So, you said the family should definitely be involved with the process.

Harris:  Family has got to be involved. They're wonderful, they support us, they've supported as my children supported my entire career. And so, someone's gotta help us with that. Someone's gotta help us. I don't think it's fair, as much as my children love me for them now to be my caretaker after they've given up 20+ years of their lives following us around, now they're gonna be my caretaker? And the government doesn't wanna even give them enough money to be . . .  And then what about their medical care? No one's paying for that.

But I mean, outside of connecting with family, is there anything systemically a soldier should be doing?

Harris: Definitely gotta go to the VA. The place where we dread going to. Going to the VA feels like you've been put out to pasture. In our minds, and even for my generation, it's like, old people go to VA. A lot of us didn't even think of ourselves as veterans for a long time. And so we gotta get rid of those misnomers. We gotta get educated within ourselves so that we can help others help us to heal.

Wright: I think the one thing that they kept referring to in the process was just not isolating one's self. And not shutting down.

Harris: Yes. And I think what our film is gonna do is open up the opportunity for more dialogue. It's gonna be, I think, multiple venues. But I think it's gonna open up the dialogue: Hey, that's me up there. Oh, somebody gets it. Oh, they're not afraid to stand up there. And as a leader I owe that to those that I've served with.

And I'm sure when you research different characters that you've played over the years, you've always learned something brand new or developed something that you can take with you on your journey. But how does working on a film like this, how does it change you? Is it similar to you researching a character? Or does it hit you in a different way?

Wright: This has been a unique experience for me. A unique set of collaborators. What do I take from this? We're still taking. We're still on this journey, you know? So I'm still, I'm as regards the film, really pleased. We did our best with this, after Sareen Hairabedian, who is our director, captured the images, which she did beautifully. HBO came on board and gave us a little bit of funding to go do a bit more, to capture the portraits that you see of the five veterans that we feature. And took that footage once we got it all together, we had some incredible music that was composed by a musician named Wytold who works with the vets not only on this film, but works in other music workshops as well. We brought some powerful musicians together with him.

We had all of this material, we had their words and their stories and their images at the center of it. And I just took great care to make sure that we shape this film into the most beautiful piece of visual poetry and oral poetry that we could, that reflected the spirit that I got from my brothers and sisters.

So what did I take from it? I don't know what I took from it, I'm just seriously proud of them. And I'm proud of this film.

Like I said, I think it's really inspiring. And I think it's what we need to take a step forward because even people — I didn't go through the service, but I grew up in the street. And it's a different type of trauma, but it's also, it's a similar pain.

Wright:  In some ways it's not a different trauma. It's some ways it's the exact same trauma.

Harris: Yes.

Wright: And the exact same response or lack of response to it. Going back to this Theodore war piece, we actually did some readings in Brooklyn around gun violence. You have the same injuries, the same tensions, the same shame, the same anger. All these things, and like with in the military, in certain neighborhoods, many neighborhoods, most probably, it goes untreated. Unacknowledged even. And I think some of the challenges that we see in neighborhoods that see disproportionate amounts of violence are related to that trauma.

I did a film just before working with the vets that we shot in a maximum security prison in Indiana, largely with incarcerated men in the cast. And the thing, this was even before I worked on this project. The thing that I noticed, the thing that I felt walking into that space, beginning to work with them, was trauma.

And it was yes, the trauma that they delivered onto others because they did, these were men who had done some serious crime. And delivered some serious injury on people, harm. But you also felt within them injury.

Harris: Absolutely.

Wright: Damage that had gone untreated, that still was going untreated inside that facility. Injuries that began when they were children, growing up in certain neighborhoods, being involved in certain activities that brought about what I think can very accurately be described as PTSD.

So, I just say that to say, there's a serious overlap between some of the conditions that folks find themselves in coming out of certain neighborhoods, and ending up incarcerated with some of the trauma that folks experience from whether it be from war or sexual violence. There's a lot of overlap there.

And trauma's like the big, funky, stinky noticeable elephant in the room that everyone walks past. And I feel like there may be a person who needs to hear a message from you guys, because you have a different skillset, and a level of knowledge in dealing with trauma and approaching it head on. So, if someone's watching this and they were in the service or they experienced some type of trauma and they don't know what steps they should take, what would you say to them if you had a minute?

Harris: They've gotta get some help. We cannot do this alone. And when you're in that dark space, you feel like no one cares. Even if someone reaches out to you, you cannot feel it. You are numb. I used to say that I was walking dead. Literally, I was dead. So it doesn't matter, you become high risk at your behavior because you're already dead. What difference does it make? If I'm not here, what difference does it make? Is anybody gonna even notice that I'm not here?

That's why your story's so important.

Harris: It's painful. But I'm glad my brothers and sisters, whether you served or not, know that you're not alone. And it hurts like hell, but I'm still standing.

I represent hope. I wanna represent hope.

Wright: Healing. Healing hero. I don't know, maybe there's another, but I think a great tool that I've seen them take away from this is a commitment to helping others.

Using those experiences, that injury, that pain. Wrestling with it and saying, you know what I can do with this now that I have it, I have the knowledge of it, and I can reach out to someone else.

 


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-sellers “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir."

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld

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