Making Sense of the Past: An Atypical World War II-Era Drama
Yellow Bellies is a compelling three-part audio drama set during World War II featuring the experiences of Mennonite conscientious objectors and reactions from the community. It is currently available online through Theatre of the Beat.
We’ve all heard stories of war heroes who died overseas or returned to their families and struggled to readjust into society. As Remembrance Day approaches, we are reminded that there are other, almost forgotten, wartime stories of eligible young men who didn’t fight for our country, objecting to military service due to their strong Christian beliefs.
Yellow Bellies follows the lives of two Mennonite men and one Mennonite woman during the war years of 1942 to 1944. As conscientious objectors, they must deal with the reactions of the government and the public, who feel their convictions of non-violence conflict with Canadian patriotism. If the title is any clue, they are not let off easy.
Formerly a stage drama, Yellow Bellies has now been turned into a historical audio drama series during the pandemic, which can be experienced on its own or as part of a package that includes study guides. It’s produced by Theatre of the Beat, a Toronto theatre company known for initiating conversations about social justice.
Rudy is a Mennonite conscientious objector who is told that repeating his church teachings in front of a judge is not a good enough defence for an exemption from military service. He is granted a postponement, which means he is sent along with others – mostly Mennonites but also Doukhobors and men from many other denominations – to camps in the Canadian Shield and then in western Canada. The work is menial, designed to make them feel lowly compared to those who have enlisted. Rudy befriends Alvin, who knows of Rudy’s brother, who enlisted at the risk of being shunned. Alvin passes the monotony with thoughts of Mary, played by Kimberlee Walker, a kind nurse who writes to him.
Rudy and Alvin work hard for minimal pay but they know they have it easy compared to enlisted men, despite the blatant discrimination against them. The fate of his brother forces Rudy to re-examine his firm position against harming other men. Meanwhile, Mary works as a well-paid but mistreated nurse until she joins the war effort in England, where she experiences culture shock. Much has changed when Alvin and Mary are finally reunited.
Rudy Enns is played by Cedric Martin, Artistic Director of Theatre of the Beat. He is a playwright, actor, director and producer. Alvin Bender is played by Johnny Wideman, founder of Theatre of the Beat and winner of several awards for his work. Mary Lichti is played by Kimberlee Walker. Joe McLellan is an ensemble voice and musician.
Clever use of interview material and historical songs make this story feel authentic and plausible. Though each actor plays multiple roles, it isn’t difficult to differentiate them. The four cast members skillfully alter their voices for each character. Sound effects, though primitive, assist in establishing the location of the characters. Overall, Yellow Bellies works well as an audio drama, due to the use of techniques employed by old radio programs.
Although I would have preferred to see the original stage production, the audio version has a major advantage: a pause and rewind button to catch every word. When the family interrupts, the audio files can wait for you. Its also portable, if you choose to download it onto a mobile device. I commend the effort put into reworking this piece from its original form to bring a lesser known bit of war history to a wider audience.
Yellow Bellies is available at http://theatreofthebeat.ca/yellow-bellies. There you can find an audio trailer and information about the study guides available.
Photo: Cedric Martin, Joseph McLellan, Johnny Wideman, Stage Manager Fran Barker and Kimberlee Walker in the 2019 stage production of Yellow Bellies.
By Rebecca Steiner and Johnny Wideman
Directed by Sukhpreet Sangha
Performed by Cedric Martin, Joe McLellan, Kimberlee Walker and Johnny Wideman
Theatre of the Beat Production
Available online now until further notice
Reviewed by Vicki Stokes