One of the events that places having an African-American commander-in-chief in perspective is the Port Chicago explosion. On July 17, 1944, the largest state-side military disaster of World War II took 320 lives and injured another 390 at the Port Chicago Naval Munitions base on the San Francisco Bay.
Among the dead, 202 were black sailors who had been assigned the duty of loading the bombs and other weapons aboard transport ships. Of the injured, 233 were black. None of those sailors had received training in handling hazardous materials and neither had their white commanding officers.
A play at the Ruskin Group Theater next to the Santa Monica Airport presents the context for the disaster and the court martial which followed it. The court martial did not try the persons responsible for the disaster but 50 black seamen who refused to return to bomb loading unless safety measures were added.
Playwright Paul Leaf earlier won a Peabody Prize for his production of Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys. Through the help of then Rep. Ron Dellums, while chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Leaf gained the records of the Port Chicago case.
Another work on the tragedy is the book by Black Scholar editor Robert Allen.
The play, which continues through next weekend, is told through four black seamen who interact with two white officers, pressing them to load the ships faster so they can decide a bet and meet wartime schedules. Presciently, the sailors warn that the pace is too fast to be safe. The four sailors have the fortune of being off duty when the explosion happens, but some are injured when their barracks collapsed.
They have the duty of picking up the remains of the dead, shredded to bits.
In a small space, the script does a good job of placing this huge event in context, often with incredulous exchanges that point out the common racism of military life in World War II.
The theatre is located at 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. For more information, call 310-397-3244.