Translating the scope and pathos of Native American history into an evening of theater is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, and this production falls short of that lofty goal, despite a memorable performance by Ned Romero and a wonderful pageant of music, dance and costume.
Playwright Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of John Neihardt’s book is a faithful retelling of Black Elk’s vision, but without the magical, mystical spirit of the famous shaman.
Except for a few transcendent moments, the effect is of a lively history lesson from a by-now-familiar point of view. And while the piece recounts the tragic destruction of Native American culture, it barely touches on the deeper spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of this tragedy.
Black Elk’s sacred role as shaman is not really explored here, which is a particular disappointment since the great gifts of Romero are never fully utilized.
Nevertheless, Romero forms the emotional centerpiece of the play, as he narrates the reenactment of his vision for the benefit of a young Lakota, Hoksila (David Medina), who argues for assimilation into white culture.
The story sweeps across nearly five centuries, from the landing of Columbus to the painful isolation and despair of Native Americans in the 20th century.
It chronicles the struggles of many tribes, from the Santees and the Cheyennes to the Mohawks and the Pequots, and features a whirlwind of characters , including Andrew Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill and Queen Victoria.
However, its central focus is on the Oglala Sioux, who now occupy the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, and the misery they suffered from the white man’s legacy of “guns, whiskey and smallpox.”
This production is graced with a gifted ensemble of Native American actors from many tribes and a marvelous attention to detail in music, costume and dance.
Musical composition and direction by Dennis Yerry is energetic and haunting. Choreography by Jane Lind is often powerful and the perf by hoop dancer Stephan Ray Swimmer is a show-stopper. Costume design by Andrew V. Yelusich is sweeping and evocative.
Director Donovan Marley, who helped to shape the script with Sergel’s widow, Gayle, after the playwright’s death, sets a brisk and effective tone for the piece, while missing some of the deeper, more subtle shades.
Despite its shortcomings, the evening’s ending is powerful and its effect is lasting. At last these forgotten voices are heard. In the final words of Black Elk — “We have spoken.”