Manatee Players look to explore forbidden love in World War II with the musical Yank!

By : Jeremy Williams
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Yank! is many things: A musical that honors the song and dance of the 1940s; a play that tells the story of sending young men off to war. More importantly though, it’s a history lesson for how World War II was the frontline that created a community that would later become the movement for gay rights.

“I think with a lot of people LGBT history starts with Stonewall, but our history starts far beyond Stonewall,” Yank! director Kenn Rapczenski says. “Many of the soldiers, especially ones who were court-martialed for being homosexual, couldn’t go back to their small towns and farms, so they settled into big cities like San Francisco. This was the first time gays and lesbians were able to be with each other in a united way and started to form communities.”

Yank! gets its name from the title of Yank, the Army Weekly, a military magazine published during World War II, and while all the characters in the musical are fictional, the situations and events are all culled from real life accounts from both gay and straight service members of the time.

“This time period allowed people, by becoming a soldier and having the honor to serve your country, to become empowered and say, ‘I am who I am,’ and while they had to closet themselves, they weren’t afraid anymore,” Rapczenski says. “The camaraderie between the squad men was very strong, and many of them didn’t care or didn’t say anything. It was the government that was hunting them.”

Yank! starts in modern times with a guy living in San Francisco who finds the journal of Stu, a gay solider from World War II, in an old shop. As he reads the journal we are taken back to 1943, when Stu is drafted into the Army. The musical is very traditional in the sense that you get catchy tunes, show stopping dance numbers and an intimate love story told with a world-changing event as the backdrop, but unlike most musicals, this is a love story between two men.

Stu meets Mitch and the love and passion they discover with each other is the all too often untold stories of gay men sent off to war.

“It’s a love story within the confines of their sexuality during a time where you didn’t have to worry about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ you just didn’t be,” Rapczenski says.

Yank! was written by brothers David and Joseph Zellnik in 2005. It won Best Musical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and was later seen Off-Broadway in 2010. The Manatee Players bring it to the Manatee Preforming Arts Center Feb. 18- March 6, the first time this musical has been played in this region.

“This is a huge deal to be doing THIS musical in THIS area,” says Brian Craft, who plays Stu in The Manatee Players production. “The subscriber base here, the patrons here, and the volunteers here, this is a really big deal, so I think it’s great that it’s being done tactfully. It represents us well and realistically and in a light that they haven’t seen before.”

Brandenton, and Manatee County in general, is an older, more conservative community.

Craft is joined by a collection of local actors from the Tampa Bay, Sarasota and Manatee area including Katie Eichler, Brian Finnerty, Dave Addis, Chris Hines, Phillip Morehouse, Jay Poppe, Brian Strubbe, Joseph Rebella and Joshua Roberson.

Billy Masuck plays Mitch. Masuck, an openly gay Tampa actor who has played romantic leads in some of The Manatee Players’ productions in the past, found this role to be a bit more difficult.

“It was really challenging playing a romantic lead with another guy. In theater you get so used to playing romance with a female character, and it is acting, but this was different because I was playing true to myself, and that was much harder than I thought it would be,” Masuck says.

Even with the more conservative area, only one thing has been changed from the original musical. Rapczenski says that a scene that had nudity was altered, but that nothing was changed when it comes to the violence, language or love scenes. They are all left intact to stay authentic to the musical and the time, which is a good thing according to Craft.

“I think it will help our older patrons, because it takes the story back to a time they know and are familiar with, so it isn’t like we are telling them our story set to some modern-day event or style. We show them a love story they may or may not be comfortable with, but it is in a setting and style they know,” he says. “I’m excited and scared for them to see this one, because this is so much more personal to me.”

Yank! is part of the Manatee Arts Center’s “Action through Acting” series. The series consists of six shows, each one done in collaboration with a nonprofit in Manatee County, as a way to build community awareness and provide socially relevant issues a voice through live theatrical presentations.

Yank! is in collaboration with Equality Florida, and all performances are in the Manatee Performing Arts Center’s Bradenton Kiwanis Theater.

More information
What: Yank! A WWII Musical
When: Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays- Saturdays, 8:00 p.m., Sundays, 2:00 p.m., Feb. 18 through March 6
Where: Manatee Performing Arts Center
Tickets: $26,

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