Know Your Enemy
Made famous by reggae legend Bob Marley, buffalo soldiers were the African-American U.S. Army troops who patrolled the American West after the Civil War. As the song indicates, 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 these soldiers as distinct from the "white devil," and in fact the Comanche and Cheyenne Indians called 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 staged at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, offers an in-depth and fascinating exploration of the complicated role these men played in American history. The setting is 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, yet they shared a painfully similar history of oppression. PostCivil War participation in westward expansion was one of the most concrete ways for African-American men to hoist themselves out of the dregs of slavery-induced oppression and claim part of this country 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 of the soldiers. Just as slaves were looked upon as mere 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 a part of the cavalry. Williams swallows the resentment he has harbored against his white oppressors 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 is a powerful force on stage -- his long strides and commanding presence are arresting.
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' 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 the chief 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 who evolves most drastically, Robinson displays excellent control over the emotional shifts that occur within his portrayal of the former slave. 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 complex 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 Corporal Wymo and Sergeant Williams generates much of the drama that propels Buffalo Soldier. As each man makes his decisions, 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. The private jumps around, drinks too much, and tries Williams' patience with his rebellious nature. Watkins' energetic performance sets up a contrast with the older, more serious Williams and Wymo.
The fundamental irony of the play comes from the question: Who is the real enemy? Early in the play, Captain Cooney takes solace in the fact that at least the cavalrymen know who their enemies are. He refers to the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, where 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' 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 gives Buffalo Soldier depth and tension.
As the Comanche chief, DeLeo has the deliberate speech and even tone of someone under hypnosis. His eyes stare passively 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 Native Americans in history. He was the last chief of the Comanches and never lost a battle to the white man. Beneath the somber façade, a cauldron should be boiling. Quanah's conversations with Wymo, in which the chief is presumably 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 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 the cavalryman 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," Wymo reveals. "And just when he's about ready to run over me, he stops. We know each other." 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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