Womens’ War Effort Recreated
GROTON — Nearly 75 years after it ended, there’s still a plethora of stories to tell about the people of World War II.
Judith Kalaora will tell five of them all on her own this weekend.
The founder and artistic director of History At Play will visit the Groton Public Library on May 19 at 2 p.m. to perform “World War Women.” Kalaora will spend 75 minutes portraying five different women who made significant contributions to the victory of the Allied Powers in 1945. She’ll jump between characters as she chronicles the feats these women made throughout the war, ranging from spying on Nazis to flying to testing fighter planes.
“World War Women looks at the war from a very new angle that has only received publicity in recent months,” Kalaora said over the phone last Thursday. “We don’t hear as much about the spies because they were doing reconnaissance and it was classified. These women were working at stations throughout Europe ensuring that we were a step ahead of the Axis.”
“World War Women” revolves around five brave women: Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins, Jacqueline Cochran, Ann Baumgartner and Jane Fawcett.
Hall, known as “the limping lady” due to her having a prosthetic leg, served as a spy for the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services.
According to Kalaora, Hall was recruited by Atkins who herself was the principal assistant to Col. Maurice Buckmaster, director of the SOE. Atkins herself recruited and trained SOE agents who would eventually parachute into France to sabotage the Nazis.
Cochran went through a rather surprising career change in her life, jumping from developing her own line of cosmetics in the 1930s to training over a thousand female pilots as the leader of the U.S. Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, during the war.
One of those pilots was Baumgartner, the only WASP appointed to the Army’s Fighter Flight Test division and was the first woman to fly a jet-propelled airplane.
Fawcett was involved in more technical details of the war, serving as one of many who decoded encrypted German messages at Bletchley Park in England. Her decryption skills led to the British Royal Navy sinking the Bismarck, one of Germany’s most advanced battleships at the time, in May 1941.
“This is the side of World War II that made the Allies’ victory possible,” Kalaora said. “It could not have happened without the domestic and reconnaissance side of the war.”
There were multiple factors that lead to Kalaora choosing those five women to highlight on her show. She explained that while researching Atkins in England, she learned how Atkins had recruited Hall and wanted to learn more about both women. Kalaora also wanted to learn more about Fawcett after she died in 2016.
Kalaora admitted to being an “airplane junkie,” hence her interest in the aerial exploits of Baumgartner and Cochran.
Despite the different experiences the five women had, Kalaora found a common belief shared amongst the quintet.
“There’s this visceral emotional need showing that they had the sacred duty to fight and work and labor until Nazism was rid from Europe,” she said. “Multiples times a character will say, ‘This is my duty.’ That thread of ‘We will not stop’ is seen throughout the performance.”
Though all women have equal importance, Kalaora said that she felt the most connection with Hall and Baumgartner. Kalaora said she wanted to do the work that Hall did in the war and admired her strong temperament. As for Baumgartner, Kalaora said playing the test pilot added a bit of levity to the show given how “quirky and happy” she was in real life.
Kalaora said that Cochran was a bit more difficult to embody given the “contradiction” she epitomized.
“This beautiful woman was so smart, but people didn’t take her brain seriously,” Kalaora said. “She had a cosmetics line but was also a badass fighter pilot, that’s something human beings would never consider doing. I was wrapping my mind around her Southern Belle personality and having the ferocity that she had.”
Greater attention is being given to powerful and groundbreaking women today so it would seem that “World War Women” would bring that focus back to those who impacted such pivotal moments in human history. Kalaora sees the show as something even bigger.
“When I founded History At Play, I thought it was really important that it wasn’t exactly women’s history but untold stories,” she said. “As it evolved, I found that this was a niche industry that was desired. I always select women whose stories positively impacted society in some way. It lets audiences realize ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”