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Moad performing as part of "The Telling Project."
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Moad, during his pilot training.
J.A. Moad II starts rehearsals in Minneapolis at the end of this month for his first one-man play, “Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home,” which he wrote and will perform over Veteran’s Day weekend (November 10-13). His play is set in Kentucky and will have its world premiere in the Twin Cities, but it all goes back to dark nights as a boy in Granite City, Illinois. His father, James Allen Moad, had served as a U.S. Army paratrooper during the Vietnam War, just a few years before James Allen Moad II was born in 1966. The combat veteran suffered from nightmares, and his son’s earliest memories are haunted by the sound of his father—a proud, strapping, fearless man—screaming in his sleep.
J., as the son is now known, followed his father into military service, graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy (where he was a rugby standout) in 1988. He flew the C-130 combat transport plane during two tours in Bosnia (1994-7 and 2001-3), dropping off paratroopers and supplies. Spurred by the Telling Project, which uses theater to inform civilians about the military experience, he would eventually perform some of these memories at the Library of Congress in 2011. “I cried onstage,” J. remembers. “I talked about seeing young paratroopers jump out of my plane, and how I always imagined my dad in the back of the plane, and I was the guy in the front who can keep him safe.”
By that time, he had already left the service—he retired at the rank of major in 2010—and written the first of the three acts that would become “Outside Paducah,” but he didn’t know that yet. His father played a formative role in the creation of this earlier piece, “Our Ghost,” as well. In 2009, J. was teaching literature as an active duty officer at his alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His parents by then had moved from Granite City to Barlow, Kentucky—which is outside Paducah—and driving down to visit them (J. is a pilot who likes a good road trip), he saw signs in Illinois for a town named Mound City. He liked the town name and asked about it. His dad (who seems to know something about everything) said the town was named after Indian burial grounds, but there was also a Civil War and veteran’s cemetery outside of town. “The first thought that came into my brain,” J. says, “was those ghosts must be talking to each other.”
A week later, back home in Colorado Springs, while working out at a public gym, J. heard the voice of an 8-year-old boy talking to a neighbor in his head. He ran to the locker room, grabbed the notebook he carried everywhere, sat down at the bench by his locker, and started writing down what the boy’s voice was saying. “When it hits you, you’ve got to do it,” J. says; “otherwise, you worry about it leaving you.” The boy stayed with him over the span of the few days it took him to write the relatively short story. The child in his head, whose father was an Iraq War veteran, was not J. as a boy, though it’s easy to see why this voice might come to him. “He was talking about his father,” J. says. “His dad had a debilitating, traumatic brain injury in Iraq. But the boy doesn’t know that. He just knows something is wrong with his father.”
The year after his successful performance at the Library of Congress—which, J. says, first gave him the confidence that he could succeed as a writer—he discovered what would become the conclusion of “Outside Paducah.” He went home to visit his brother Chris Moad and family in Edwardsville, Illinois, because his sister-in-law had been diagnosed with cancer. J. filled their freezer with organic food to feed the kids while their mother focused on her health, then went out drinking with a close friend from high school, Eddie Thomas. At some dark, scary bar outside of East St. Louis, J. struck up a conversation with a man next to him drinking Pabst, who looked like a rough customer. J. declines to say what exactly it was this man said to him that put a voice in his head, because it’s crucial to the conclusion of his play. “It was such a dark line,” J. says. “I thought, ‘Wow, there is more here.’” There was more there. J. crafted that dark line into “Quittin’ Meth,” a story about an Iraq War veteran who “ends up in a bar in his hometown late at night that he knows he shouldn’t be going to.”
J. performed “Quittin’ Meth” as a short story last year during a reading at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. A man named Scott Allen (who has a stage credit in the original cast of “A Chorus Line” in 1975) led a rousing standing ovation. J’s new biggest fan approached him afterwards, fisted the author in his chest, and told him, “You have to perform that on the stage. Nobody else can do what you just did with that.”
J. began to imagine what such a stage play might be. He could see starting with “Our Ghost” and ending with “Quittin’ Meth,” but he decided that he was missing a piece that could bridge the haunted boy and the broken man. “Once I made that decision,” J. says, “I woke with a voice in my brain. I could hear and see a father walking back from the bank, talking to himself. His son had been to Iraq and was pretty messed up.” That was the bridge story, as well as the title track, “Outside Paducah.” J. says, “It’s like it was just waiting there for me to commit myself.” He might speak openly about transcribing voices that appear in his head, but that doesn’t mean he is not a dedicated craftsman. He flies the Airbus for Delta Air Lines on a light schedule that permits ample rewriting time, and has fixed up a barn behind his house in the charming college town of Northfield, Minnesota, as a private study and performance space. Until recently, he was still reworking “Outside Paducah” under the guidance of an established playwright, Carson Kreitzer.
Once he had a finished play and an actor (himself), J. needed a director. He thought of Leah Cooper, who formerly ran the Minnesota Fringe Festival and directed a Veterans Play Project at Ft. Snelling, an historic military encampment in St. Paul. They knew some of the same people in the Twin Cities’ veteran writers community (J. led an effort to have the State of Minnesota designate October as Veterans Voices Month, edits fiction for the U.S. Air Force Academy’s journal, War, Literature & the Arts, and is an all-around networked guy). He sent Cooper a theatrical draft of the first two acts of “Outside Paducah” and asked, if she liked them, whether he could perform the final story for her. By then, “Quittin' Meth” had won a fiction award from the Boston-based Consequence Magazine, which is dedicated to the literature of war and trauma, and J. saw it as his ace in the hole. Indeed, after he performed it for her, he had himself a director. They then enlisted Gremlin Theatre to present the show in the Black Box Theater at the Bloomington Center for the Arts, with Peter Christian Hansen producing, scheduling it around Veterans Day.
“The memory of my father having trauma from war is layered in much of my work,” J. says, but his father inspired him in more ways than by providing psychic triggers for subject matter. While studying creative writing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a literature professor named Howard Ramsby would introduce J. to the work of Toni Morrison and Richard Wright, who profoundly influenced him as a writer, but it was his father, the self-taught former paratrooper, who first encouraged him to read. “Read, read, read,” J. says. His father was also an unforgettable spoken word performer. A powerfully built man with a bald head and handlebar moustache, the old man kept J. and his friends up late with mythic, rhythmic, spooky tales about monstrosities and men. One of J.’s dad’s signature story closers—“if you ain’t John, I’m gone!”—is seared into the memory of any boy who ever spent the night at the Moads’ ranch house (or camper) in Granite City. “My dad was a natural storyteller,” J. says. “I would always listen to him talk and tell stories, and I kind of absorbed that.”
Disclosure: the author was childhood friends with J.A. Moad II and has vivid memories of his dad’s storytelling.
Outside Paducah opens Thursday, November 10 and runs just one weekend through Sunday, November 13 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts in the Black Box Theater (1800 W Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, Minnesota). All performances are at 7:30 p.m. with the exception of the 2 p.m. matinee performance on November 13, which will be followed by a discussion with the author and a panel of veterans. Tickets are $25 general admission; under 30, pay half your age every night. Discounts are available for seniors, veterans & Fringe button holders. Free parking is available in the parking lot at the theatre. For more information, call 1-888-71-TICKETS or go to gremlin-theatre.org.