Racial identity is the coin of playwright Carlyle Brown’s dramatic realm. Minstrel players in The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, actors in The African Company Presents “Richard III,” a Kentucky slaveholder and the mulatto woman of his dreams in Yellow Moon Rising, and the Russian czar’s black son in The Negro of Peter the Greatthey all confront the bile of their own prejudices and those of others.
And so it is again in Buffalo Hair, first performed in 1993 and now brought to the Kennedy Center in a thought-provoking, if talky and pallid, performance by the African Continuum Theatre Company.
In 1874, a squad of black “buffalo soldiers” of the 10th Cavalry is ordered to suppress an uprising of the Southern Cheyenne Indians. On a small island in the Red River they capture Buffalo Hair, a warrior who is black but lives with and fights for the Cheyenne, who freed him from his slavery to the Kiowa of the Great Plains.
It’s a taut premise, and Brown uses it as a clever and rather chilling reflection of the racial conflict, class exploitation, violence, rootlessness, and other toxins still coursing through America today. Brown has a superb ear for dialogue, and the characters, though defined in a sense by the superficialstribe, rank, colorare expertly individuated early on.
The exposition of their histories, however, is a bit clumsy. One by one, they explain their pasts in a sequence that bogs down the plot and undermines the ensemble nuances Brown has gone to some lengths to establish. That sort of tack works better in A Chorus Line than in a saga of Western blood hatred.
Director Kenneth Daugherty deftly handles the play’s main course: the verbal sparring among the squad members and between them and Buffalo Hair. But the introduction to the actionBuffalo Hair (Ken Yatta Rogers) bearing his conflicted soul to his adoptive father, Kiowa Killer (Michael Nephew)is stiff and sluggish. And the work’s finish, which should swoop down in an unsettling, cathartic frenzy, is instead rushed and hushed and a little confusing.
With a couple of exceptions, the cast is strong.
Rogers’ young warrior is a muscled mass of fury, indignation, and fragile pride. His face, painted half-white, half-black, mirrors, of course, a tortured racial identity befitting what the Cheyenne call a “black white man.” But, along with the thick mane of hair that gave him his name, the paint also serves as a mask, concealing his confusion and self-doubt behind a stealthy and feral fury.
Pride is Buffalo Hair’s armor; it is also his weakness. He was sent only on a mission of reconnaissance. Had it not been for his poking the sleeping black cavalry officers in a traditional show of tribal courage (and in the most beautifully choreographed section of this staging), he would not be a prisoner. It’s as though he were fated to touch and awaken the raw and dangerous parts of his own history.
His unrelenting insolence toward his captorswho regard him almost more as a curiosity than as a threatprovides the play with most of its fire, as well as with some chuckles at the sheer outrageousness of his lines, trash talk elevated to lethal psychological warfare. “Don’t you miss things?” Cavalry Sgt. Full Dress (Felix Stevenson) asks Buffalo Hair about his past as a black man. “Only your scalp hanging from my shirt,” snorts the warrior.
Stevenson conveys a convincing world-weariness and a reluctant and tenuous authority over his ragged band of soldiers. A professional, Full Dress is quietly but savagely proud of the pocket watch given to him by a “Johnny Reb” he slew in the Civil War. (The Confederate apparently mistook Full Dress for one of his own slaves.) It turns out, in a telling, tender twist, though, that the watch’s greatest appeal is its picture of the Confederate’s daughterwho reminds the sergeant of his own daughter, whom he knows he’ll never see again. Full Dress is ambivalent toward his white superiors, whose orders he would die following, even as he gripes bitterly about “young West Point nigger-killers.”
Tulsa (J.J. Johnson) and Cooter (David Lamont Wilson) are part-Indian themselves. Cooter’s a tried combatant, cool under pressure as the Cheyenne come near. Tulsa’s a hardened nihilist who seems to both envy Buffalo Hair his warrior persona and see through it. The two are almost alter egos, but whereas Buffalo Hair has chosen alliances through loyalty, Tulsa has chosen his by necessity. He has no great fear ofnor reverence forany group.
“I am a Cheyenne warrior,” Buffalo Hair declares majestically to Tulsa as the latter interrogates him. “You’re a nervy little nigger,” is Tulsa’s retort. Later, Tulsa says, “An Injun ain’t no better than a nigger. No better than a white man….Nobody chooses nothin’ in this life.”
A different kind of half-breed, and a more familiar dramatic type, is the half-white, half-black Lavender (Kelly Gardner), an insubordinate rookie looking for hourly fights to distract him from the big fight with the long odds that, his comrades ghoulishly enjoy reminding him, he’ll face come morning. Gardner gives the role a slithery, sullen spin.
The marvelous Addison Switzer is at once unnerving and sympathetic as the stuttering Tufts, a name that might refer to the hair he lost to an Indian scalper as well as to the flowers he subsequently started using to decorate his hat. Committed to his sergeant but unpredictable and explosive, he’s the most mysterious and intriguing of the cavalrymen.
The weak links are the Cheyenne. Nephew, as Kiowa Killer, mutes his delivery to the point that his sermons sound more like the platitudes of an uninspiring rabbi than the wisdom of a sage tribal elder. Referring to the many scalps on his shirt and the haunting visions of the worthy foes he has slain, Kiowa Killer says, “You carry these things around with you.” But for all the passion Nephew gives the line, you’d suspect he’d picked up the scalps at a flea market. Ralph Gaeta, as Iron Hand, is also problematic. Urging Buffalo Hair to avenge the death of Iron Hand’s son, he sounds more kvetchy than fierce.
Reggie Ray’s costumes are realistic, with the mixed-and-matched haphazardness and dinginess of combat life. Thomas F. Donahue’s set evocatively captures the mood of a woodsy encampmentbut, frankly, there isn’t quite enough of it. The stumps and branches and glowing fire, especially under lighting designer Dan Covey’s moody blues, reds, and oranges, work well. But a black curtain behind the tree dioramas, for all the audience’s imagination, conveys nothing of the river and horizon supposedly beyond. It’s as if the troupe just couldn’t afford a scrim. Perhaps a little more water among the appropriately creepy animal calls and combat whistles of Mark K. Anduss’ sound design would have helped. As would just a line or two in the program to orient the audience. Whether by fluke or some mysterious intent, ACT’s playbill for the production doesn’t have that. Nor does it have even a blurb about Brown or Daugherty, a D.C. native who has worked with theater groups in Phoenix, Ariz., and Lancaster, Pa.
Qualms aside, Buffalo Hair has all too much resonance in an age when race and arms remain such a combustible combination. “We are not fighting about horses or scalps,” Kiowa Killer tells his bloodthirsty black son. “We are fighting to exist.” And soalbeit in different waysare the cavalry troops assigned to vanquish the natives. “The American race of people is hard and hateful,” Buffalo Hair says early on. But by play’s end, even this unyielding warrior realizes, and tells his Cheyenne elders, that the black troops “are like us. They have nowhere to go.”
It is not in participating in the Cheyenne Sun Dance, but in coming to understand that sad, simple truth of dark-skinned placelessness, that Buffalo Hair becomes worthy of the respect of all his many tribesmen. And for all the bumps along its way, Brown’s play brings that melancholy maturation home. CP