Half Native American and half African-American, the title character of Carlyle Brown's Buffalo Hair struggles to make sense of his racial identity. That internal battle, refracted in the lives of several other mixed-race characters, forms the central conflict of this fascinating historical drama. The regional premiere at Eulipions offers an eye-opening, sometimes gripping history lesson. Yet a history lesson does not a drama make, and this show needs work.
As an ex-slave rescued from his Kiowa owner by the Cheyenne, it is the bane of Buffalo Hair's existence to be called "black white-man" by his new people. He sets out to prove himself worthy of his Cheyenne family by sneaking into a camp of black Buffalo soldiers and trying to touch them bare-handed without a weapon. Those fellow ex-slaves also come from a variety of racial backgrounds--some are half-Indian, one is half-white. When Buffalo Hair is captured and roughed up a little, he refuses to talk at first. But when he does start talking, his words are sharp as skinning knives and he cuts his captors to the quick.
All night long, the Buffalo Soldiers wait for an Indian attack due at sunup. And during their anguished vigil, they begin to question how white society has exploited them in an attempt to subdue the Indians. The black soldiers are the most sympathetic characters, but the Russell Means-styled Buffalo Hair has his point of view, too.
Despite a number of bumbles (the actors clearly needed a little more rehearsal time), there were a few outstanding performances. Keith L. Hatten, a powerful actor who commands attention whenever he is on stage, gives Buffalo Hair texture and tiers of rage. Keithwayne Brock Johnson as the sergeant major gives an intricate portrait of a dignified man driven to the edge. Jearrod Arnold turns in the most exciting performance of the evening as Tulsa, an angry young man who survived the infamous "Removal of 1838" in which thousands of Indians were force-marched out of Georgia under deadly conditions.
Playwright Brown pries open a much-forgotten chapter in American history to remind the audience of the contributions African-Americans made to the armed forces. Their courage and tenacity in battle is undisputed. But containing the Indians is what the cavalry did for a living, so Brown has to walk a fine line to express sympathy for both the soldiers and their foes. It's a tough position for a humanist, and Brown tries hard but falters in his attempt to show how Buffalo Hair and the soldiers are all at the mercy of white society.
The play stirs up a lot of fertile historical realities. It succeeds in awakening the viewer's curiosity and conscience about the uncertain fate faced by men suddenly freed from lifelong slavery. But it also suffers from the playwright's mixed political agenda. As good as some of the dialogue is, and as thoughtful as the play's conception is, Brown scatters his fire and misses the mark.
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