In an environment where a person can be considered an "individual augmentee" and a dog a piece of equipment — that is, a combat situation — the relationship between the two may be the only humanizing factor.
Kansas City actor and playwright Logan Black’s one-man play "Bond" explores the trauma of serving in an Iraqi combat zone alongside his best friend, a Labrador named Diego.
"It doesn't matter if the last mission went well, or the last mission was bad, you had a dog that was always there to lick your face and say, 'I love you, and things are going to be okay. Let's get a ball and go play,'" Black says.
The story, which some Kansas City audiences know from performances of "Bond" prior to the new version now on stage at the Unicorn Theatre, is one of healing the humanity often shattered in war. The dog was Black's point of entry into healing, but writing the stories further unburdened him, as veterans who've participated in the arts can attest.
Black had been a National Guard reservist since 1996, but he switched to Army active duty in 2004, shortly after the United States invaded Iraq. He was reclassified to disarm mines, and served for one year in Iraq with Diego, searching for weapons, ammunitions and improvised explosive devices (IED).
Black's true love — aside from his canine — was not the Army but the theater. He'd already earned a bachelor's degree in acting by the time he went on active duty. The Army kept him off of stages for five years, which felt like long enough.
So, Black separated from the Army but Diego stayed behind as Army property. Black tried hard to keep him. The two were separated for six years before Black found a way to permanently adopt him.
One summer several years ago, after they'd settled down in Kansas City, Black found himself without work. He was searching for a one-man show to perform during the Fringe Festival in 2015, when a friend suggested he write his own: the story of working with Diego.
Black recalls thinking: "This was just my day job. Nobody wants to hear about the soldier's day job. I mean, the dog is cool, but, come on."
Even as he wrote stories like the one about finding himself on top of a roadside bomb, literally standing on it, he felt they might not be interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention.
He wrote about how metal detectors had already cleared the road, but one last mine, the one he'd just stepped on, was buried too deep for the metal detector.
"It wasn't buried too deep for Diego's nose, and he started circling my feet, sniffing around, and sat, which is his indication that there's an explosive."
Turns out the audience was interested.
He performed the show at Fringe in 2015, then continued editing it and performing it in other venues.
At a climatic moment in each performance, Diego joined him on stage and the crowd loved that as well. Diego proved himself an actor and combat veteran just like Black.
However, in the years since that first Fringe performance, Diego died.
Now Black has partnered with Mike Horner at Mesner Pupper Theater to create a new stage companion.
Cynthia Levin, director of "Bond" at the Unicorn, says it took the team three or four incarnations to get the dog right.
"At first it was a life-size dog, but the proportion was off to who Diego was, or we needed the tail to go in a circle and not just wag, and we needed the ears, and we needed the mouth to catch a tennis ball, and all of these things that have been created," Levin says.
Black had originally only mimed interactions with Diego, but the puppet is now integral to the performance.
"I think you absolutely buy that Diego puppet is Diego dog," Levin says.
Of course, the puppet can't replace Black's friend, but he agrees that it works very well.
"The puppet does come alive," he says. "It has a personality, it has its own little ticks and quirks, and a lot of the time those mirrored Diego's. It’s wonderful to have him there.”
"Bond," through May 19 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.
Veteran Writing Workshops: Write to Perform from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday, May 4, 11 and 18 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111. Free, but registration is required.
Logan Black and Cynthia Levin spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard.