Mary Williams Jasicki’s Fringe Festival show, “Passing the Poison,” tells through music, dance, and narration the story of Vietnam veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange.
Her project evolved from a research paper she wrote for a class. A retired dance studio owner and former pageant winner from St. Anthony (in 1968, she was Miss Minnesota), she recently enrolled in college to finish her degree. In her “America in the 1960s” history class, she said, “I was the only person in the class who’d been alive back then.” When they studied the Vietnam War, she discovered that the other students’ understanding of the war was limited.
“They knew that our veterans had had a ‘thankless homecoming,’ with some people spitting on them and calling them ‘baby killers.’ But they didn’t have the whole story,” she said.
For instance, they knew little about Agent Orange, a dioxin the U.S. government had used to defoliate the jungles. Williams Jasicki decided to focus her class research paper on it. She began interviewing Vietnam veterans; now in their 60s and 70s; some had serious medical problems. She also worked with Maynard Kaderlik, national chair of Faces of Agent Orange and member of Vietnam Veterans of America.
“Many of these vets grew too old too soon,” Williams Jasicki said. “They have hip dysplasia, neuropathy, heart problems, auto-immune diseases. I believe the exposure they had over there pushed them over into many diseases. One man told me, ‘I was killed over there. I just haven’t died yet.’”
In addition, she said, there is a strong possibility that Agent Orange didn’t affect only the veterans. Many diseases are being passed on to their children and grandchildren.
Williams said that Agent Orange was “very concentrated when used in Vietnam. The concept of helping out the troops was there, but the chemicals were harmful and used in high concentration. [After the spraying] They used empty Agent Orange barrels for showers. They barbequed on them and stored potatoes and petroleum in them. Because it was not considered dangerous to humans, nobody was paying attention. But I believe the dioxin affects the immune system of those exposed. I also believe it became part of their DNA.
“Many vets don’t want to talk about it,” she added, especially when it comes to the dioxin’s possible affect on their children. “What father wants to admit that they passed on this poison to their children? I want to make others aware that the Agent Orange toxin has compromised their immune system, and that this can go on for three to five generations.”
Some vets she talked to didn’t know if they had been exposed. Many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, isolation, diabetes, or sterility. Some told her that “they feel the government is delaying doing too much about their illnesses, because now their conditions can all be blamed on their age. It is hard to prove that heart problems are linked to Agent Orange.”
“Passing the Poison”
When Williams Jasicki’s class ended, she wanted to continue her work. “I decided to go beyond the paper. There is an awareness I would like to bring to the children of Vietnam vets, if they have medical issues. Many people are unaware that the effects of Agent Orange can be passed on.”
She already had a performance background, so she decided to turn to theater. She recruited her cousin James Walsh, who lives in Northeast and leads the James Walsh Gypsy Band, playwright Shannon Riley, and a creative team of choreographers and performers. Dancers Cathy Wind and Danielle Ricci, of the Keane Sense of Rhythm and Borealis dance companies, helped her turn “Passing the Poison” into a theatrical production. At 45 minutes long, it features seven dancers, two men and five women. Four are professionals and three, teenage girls, ages 15 to 17, are apprentices.
“Passing the Poison” is presented by Twin Cities Dance Court. The show runs August 5, 6, 9, 11 and 13, at the Crane Theater in Northeast at various times.
Williams Jasicki said that her dream for the future is to work in a school system, teaching students about the Vietnam War through dance and movement. “They would be getting history through an art form. It could be a wonderful educational tool.”
Williams Jasicki is the daughter of Mel Williams, of Williams Electric, a former Central Avenue business in Northeast. She opened her first dance studio, Queen’s Court, at Apache Plaza in 1970.
The Fringe Festival is an annual Twin Cities performing arts festival that is now in its 24th year. It runs Aug. 3-13 and includes 167 productions. More than 1,000 artists will present works in various genres and disciplines. The performance groups are chosen by lottery. All shows run 60 minutes or less.
Below: Mary Williams Jasicki with Maynard Kaderlik, national chair of Faces of Agent Orange and member of Vietnam Veterans of America (provided photo), and posing in her orange with a barrel prop used in the Fringe production. (Photo by Gail Olson) Cast Members include Joshua Engebretson, Julie Hatlestad, Adam Rousar, Lilly Jacobs, Ally Chaffee, Natalie Pehl, and Anna Espasito.