Seeing Iraq war through his 'Eyes'
- Sam Hurwitt
Sunday, March 12, 2006

When former Lance Cpl. Jeff Key of the United States Marines brought his one-man show "The Eyes of Babylon" to Liberty, Ky., he was greeted by 300 demonstrators organized by a local minister, some bused in from Tennessee.

Supporters of the war in Iraq, they came to protest Key's play, drawn from his desert diaries, which questions the motives for sending soldiers to Iraq. Key advocates bringing the troops home, and he joined Berkeley's Cindy Sheehan at her Crawford, Texas, anti-war vigil and on the road afterward to tell people so.

And, oh yeah, Key is gay. But his play isn't really about that, though it is much more a personal journey than a political one.

The play, now at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco, includes a Paula Zahn interview on CNN in which Key (who joined the service in 2000 at age 34) came out as a gay Marine against the war, and quotes a letter to his commanding officer in which he declares that the same principles that led him to join the Marines prevent him from silently going along with the military's discriminatory policy toward gays. Key wrote the letter in March 2004 and still awaits official discharge papers.

The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, Ky., in a story about the play protest, quoted one woman as saying, "We don't want the gay guy here," and the organizing minister, Casey Davis, said, "As long as I'm alive, I will always discriminate against sin."

"You can't say, 'I support the troops' and step over the homeless vet going to your flag-waving rally, and criticize veterans from this war who are speaking out against it," Key says. "To me, that says support the troops until they come home, or until their politics or their religion differs from yours."

When he got to Kentucky, Key says, "it was like a Stones concert. They were all praying and speaking in tongues, and the minister said, 'I want you to know that I'm the reason all these people are here.' And I just said, 'Excuse me, brother, but I think the Lord's the reason we're all here, but go ahead. What were you going to say?' "

That Key speaks their language is no surprise. He grew up attending the Church of Christ in Alabama, and his Christianity is much more evident throughout "The Eyes of Babylon" than his homosexuality. His primary identification in the narrative, however, is as a proud Marine.

Key started reading his journal entries to fellow Marines as a way of passing the time in the desert. But when he came home and found that the reasons he'd been sent overseas had changed, he started telling his story to anyone who would listen.

"I was only there for two months before my injury," he says, "and when I came back I was amazed that America had just moved right on from the reasoning that we were given for the war in Iraq, which was that they were an imminent threat to our nation, on to 'we're affording them freedom and democracy.' No one even mentioned the reasons that my boys were still over there -- they were still over there looking for the weapons."

So when someone would ask Key what it was really like over there, which was often, he'd break out his diaries.

"It's funny," he says. "People either say that we have this very liberal media or that it's all Bill O'Reilly, depending on their politics, but the bottom line is, left, right and center, people had gotten the feeling that they weren't getting the real story. So I'd open up my journal for anybody, stranger or whatever, sand would fall out, and I'd read for them what it was like for me over there."

One person to whom he read his journal was Yuval Hadadi, introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance simply because Hadadi was originally from Israel and Key had just returned from the Middle East. One reading session over coffee led to another, and finally Hadadi mentioned that he was a theatrical director and offered to help develop Key's entries into a solo show.

An aspiring actor with a bachelor's degree in theater, Key leapt at the opportunity.

"Obviously, the subject matter is important, but ... that's not what drew me into it," Hadadi says. "I mean, I agree with what he says, but what really drew me was his writing and his delivery. There was almost something magical about it, and I wanted to make sure that somebody else would feel what I felt when he read it to me."

A six-week workshop run at Hollywood's Tamarind Theatre turned into nine months of packed performances after the word got out. Since then, Key has taken the show on the road, often performing a pared-down version without the bit of nudity that opens the show. San Francisco will see the full production.

"Whatever you think you know about this show, it's not really that," Key says. "I mean, I could write a play about what it was like to be gay in the military, or to be gay growing up in Alabama, or to be gay, period. But that's just not this play. It's about spiritual epiphany and war and patriotism."

The Eyes of Babylon runs through March 26 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $25-$35. (415) 861-8972,

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance writer.