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An Ex-Marine's Incredible Story How Jeff Key traveled from Iraq to the New York Stage

By MARK PEIKERT

You may be familiar with former Marine Jeff Key, who came out on CNN in 2004 and was the subject of the 2007 Showtime documentary Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey. But if you live in New York City, odds are you've never seen his acclaimed one-man show The Eyes of Babylon, which details his transformation from dedicated soldier to skeptical patriot.

But from now until July 3, 59E59 is finally giving New York audiences a chance to see the play for themselves.

After the 2004 premiere in L.A., Key did a reading of The Eyes of Babylon in New York, and there was interest in producing it here. But then he took a hard look at whom the play was meant for. "The message within the play has more to do with my journey to self-acceptance, set against the backdrop of a gay guy serving in a war he's come to see as immoral," he says. "I decided that actually, this play is about getting the message to the people who need it. So we did this bus and truck tour through Kentucky."

Key has changed since he served in Iraq a decade ago, but he has consciously decided to keep his personal growth from influencing the version of himself he portrays on stage. "Things I say up there were my best thinking at the time," he explains. "I say, 'Good thing we're here,' and it wasn't a good thing, but at the time I really did believe that with all my heart. I have resisted doing anything that would portray me as anything other than I was. I love America, but I'm wary of jingoistic, blind nationalism that allows you to destroy other innocent people."

As a result, every performance finds Key tracing his sometimes-painful journey all over again: "Being a Marine was about the best thing that ever happened to me. When I got to the point where I realized I couldn't be a Marine anymore with our injurious foreign policy, and the whole Don't Ask, Don't Tell thing meant being forced to lie on a broader scale, I just couldn't do it anymore. In some ways, I felt like that had been ripped away from me, and reliving the whole process, from September 11 to when I came out on CNN, has been a saving grace for me."

This nightly catharsis is matched by performing in New York City. "It would have been ridiculous for the play to not come to New York," Key says. "I come here so often, I feel like part of me is a New Yorker. After September 11, I came to New York as this Marine who knew he was going to be deployed to war, and I came here to go to Ground Zero so I would have the physical memory of it when I came to face difficult things. And I ended up being escorted onto the site by New York Fire Department guys who gave me a tour. That was a very powerful moment for me. I recommitted to doing everything I could to keep something like that from happening again."

Behind this powerful story, The Eyes of Babylon also carries another, equally moving narrative: the picked-on gay kid who dreams of a life in the theatre in New York City.

Key says, "I hated everything that made me different back in those days, and in a lot of ways, I've been on my way here since that little boy threw carnival shows in the back of his grandfather's pickup truck. And this is kind of a vindication for him. When I stepped on stage for my first show in New York, I felt him inside of me, just kind of joyous and relieved. I feel at home here."

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Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for New York Press.