Getting to Know the Enemy
Buffalo soldier, dreadlock Rasta
There was a buffalo soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival -- Bob Marley
Made famous by the Jamaican singing legend, "buffalo soldiers" was the name given to the African-American U.S. Army troops that patrolled the American West following the Civil War. As the song reveals, these black soldiers had a unique tie to the land they were protecting. Many had been born slaves or were sons of slaves. The Native Americans they fought recognized their distinction from the "white devil," and in fact the Comanche and Cheyenne Indians named them buffalo soldiers out of respect.
Using memories, dreams, visions, and a dialogue entrenched in the idiom of the time period, Mitch Hale's Buffalo Soldier, now being produced at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, offers an in-depth and fascinating exploration of the complicated role these men played in American history. It's Oklahoma circa 1874, and Captain Cooney (Duncan Young) leads his detachment of black cavalry soldiers on a scouting mission. The three soldiers under his charge -- Sergeant Williams (John Archie), Corporal Wymo (Larry Robinson), and Private Kewconda (Maurice Watkins) -- are members of the famed Tenth Cavalry, which fought the Indian wars during America's march west. When the soldiers take renegade Comanche Chief Quanah Parker (Peter Paul DeLeo) as their prisoner, conflicting loyalties and rising turmoil emerge.
Buffalo Soldier is a volatile and challenging play. Not surprisingly the thrust of the conflict has to do with the fact that black soldiers and Native Americans were put on opposite sides of the battlefield while sharing a painfully similar history of oppression. Post-Civil War participation in westward expansion was one of the most concrete ways for African-American men to free themselves from slavery and claim part of this nation for themselves. Each character in the play struggles to regain his dignity by coming to terms with the reality of slavery and the illusion of freedom, but each does so in a radically different way.
Buffalo Soldier is well equipped with dramatic plot twists and turns. Director Kevin Dean guides his actors into a performance that melds naturally with the dramatic action, ensuring that the transformations in character stay firmly fixed in the action of the play. The result is a set of characters whose verisimilitude propels us not only back in time but into the ethical dilemma as well. Buffalo Soldier manages to accomplish what a historical drama should and what the history books cannot. It doesn't just report history; it transports us to a particular place in history, in this case a desolate stretch of barren land outside Fort Sills, Oklahoma. Playwright Hale conveys this sense of time travel by his use of exacting diction and rich and varied vernacular. Each character's speech is thoroughly rooted in his experience, from Wymo, born a slave; to Kewconda, born free; to Williams, a self-educated black man from Boston.
Williams is the highest-ranking among the soldiers. Just as slaves were looked upon merely as livestock, Williams objectifies Native Americans by turning them into brutes. He hates Indians with a passion and expresses it in bloodthirsty diatribes. "Have you ever really looked into their eyes?" he asks Wymo. "There's nothing more in an Injun except the instinct to eat, fuck, and kill. They dangerous." Like many buffalo soldiers, Williams is fiercely loyal to the cause as he seeks to salvage his own integrity by being part of the cavalry. Williams swallows the resentment he has harbored and unleashes it in vociferous hatred for Native Americans. When he recounts the tale of Indians killing one of his best friends, his eyes glaze over and his face turns to stone. "Every time I cut the throat of one of them sons a bitches, I imagine it's the one who killed Charlie. I do it with pleasure," he slowly explains. As Williams, Archie, with his long strides and commanding presence, is a powerful force onstage.
Wymo, on the other hand, can't help but see the parallels between the plight of the Indians and that of blacks. In response to Williams's condemnation of the Indians, he points out the horrors that U.S. soldiers have committed against Native Americans. "Reservation life is bad, worse than being a slave sometimes," he observes. Wymo is the only soldier who can communicate in the Comanche language, and he acts as an interpreter for the prisoner Quanah. Through several well-crafted dialogues between Wymo and the Comanche chief, the audience witnesses Wymo's gradual realization of his connection with Quanah and the Native American people. A gentle, mild-mannered man, Wymo reveals his strength as much in his silence as in his words. As the character that evolves most drastically, Robinson displays excellent control over the emotional shifts that occur within his portrayal. The script's mastery of the vernacular of an uneducated man from the South coupled with the integrity of Robinson's delivery reveals Wymo's tremendous moral character.
"An Injun believes the smoke from a pipe is some kind of great spirit going up to the sky. I think about that every time I smoke," says Wymo as he sprawls out and enjoys his pipe. His link to the Indians and their ways becomes increasingly undeniable as the play develops, posing even more of a moral dilemma for him as one of Quanah's captors. The chemistry between Wymo and Williams generates much of the drama that propels Buffalo Soldier. As each man makes his decision, his polarity emerges until the two arrive at a standoff.
Kewconda is the youngest of the soldiers and the most outwardly bitter toward the army. Spirited, fiery, and smart-mouthed, he is a loose cannon, ready to lash out at any moment. He jumps around, drinks too much, and pushes Williams's patience with his rebellious nature. Watkins's energetic portrayal of Kewconda sets up a contrast between the older, more serious Williams and Wymo.
The fundamental irony of the play comes from the question: Who is the real enemy? Early on Captain Cooney takes solace in the fact that at least they know who their enemies are. He refers to the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, when it was hard to tell the blue uniforms from the gray ones. But for the rest of the soldiers, the answer is not so easy. As Wymo admits, "I reckon I don't know who my enemy is." Kewconda plays devil's advocate, strutting around and pointing out that Williams is an Uncle Tom to the white man and his army. At one point he sets off Williams's temper by calling him "boy." Later, when the plot reaches its boiling point, Captain Cooney, afraid that Williams will usurp his power, also calls him "boy." This subtlety of language and superb characterization give Buffalo Soldier depth and tension.
As the Comanche chief, DeLeo has the deliberate speech and even tone of someone under hypnosis. His eyes passively stare ahead toward a fixed point in the distance. DeLeo preserves the integrity and quiet strength of his character, but his portrayal lacks a certain degree of intensity. It is important to remember that Quanah was a renegade and one of the most feared Indians in history. He was the last chief of the Comanches,and he never lost a battle to the white man. Beneath the somber façade, we should see a cauldron boiling. Quanah's conversations with Wymo, in which the Indian presumably is speaking in his native tongue, would be an ideal opening for DeLeo to integrate a little more intensity into his character.
At the end of the play, Wymo recalls the same dream he shared at the beginning of the play. He tells of an Indian who is cutting pieces of flesh from Wymo's body, yet surprisingly he doesn't feel any pain. "He throws the last piece of hide on the fire, and from the smoke a buffalo rises up and charges at me and just when he's about ready to run over me, he stops. We know each other," Wymo recounts. His memory, juxtaposed with the reality of his experience as a buffalo soldier, suddenly makes sense. It is this kind of well-earned closure that makes Buffalo Soldier well worth experiencing.
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