The Legacy of ‘Black Elk’ : Native American actors hope that the historical epic play will make audiences question ethnic stereotypes and help raise their artistic visibility.
Ned Romero sits forward in his chair in the living room of his daughter’s Hollywood Hills home. Dressed in a black running suit with a red racing stripe, his long silver hair pulled back into a ponytail, he is gracious and soft-spoken yet undeniably commanding.
He chooses his words carefully, as if to show respect when talking about the Oglala Sioux holy man he plays in the title role of “Black Elk Speaks,” a Denver Center Theatre Company production opening at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday.
Romero has a long track record onstage and on screen. The veteran opera singer and musical theater artist came to Hollywood in 1953 and broke into TV with a bit part on “Dobie Gillis.” More recently, he’s turned up on “Northern Exposure,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Romero is perhaps best known, though, for an array of small-screen American Indians--including Chief Joseph in the 1975 television film “I Will Fight No More Forever” and Chingachguk in the 1973 TV movie of the week “Last of the Mohicans.”
Yet “Black Elk Speaks” is Romero’s first full-length non-musical play. And the project is all the more special because of the connection it has with his and his fellow Native American cast members’ own culture.
“It feels different in the dedication of the people involved,” says Romero, whose mother passed on to him the sense of being Native American but who has no specific tribal affiliation. “I have a marvelous feeling of ensemble, of unity for the piece. That may be the nature of the piece itself. The spirit of it is such that everyone who gets involved is consumed by it.”
Further, Romero believes the play has something vital to say to Native American and non-Native American audiences alike:
“The definition of the Indian as far as Hollywood has been concerned is ‘savage.’ This is one of the first pieces that has another view of the Indian.
“Maybe it’s time. Black Elk says that what was killed at Wounded Knee (was) not just people but a dream of harmony. His dream is about peace and communication and honesty--from person to person and with nature and the universe.”
“Black Elk Speaks” is certainly unusual within the context of mainstream theater. Even given the recent fascination with multicultural texts, there have been far more scripts dealing with Latino, Asian American and African American than Native American cultures.
The drama--based on a 1932 book by poet John G. Neihardt, which in turn was derived from conversations he had with Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man and second cousin of Crazy Horse during the early 1930s--offers a range of meaty roles for its cast of Native American and part-Native American actors.
Black Elk told Neihardt his life story--including his experiences at the Battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and his tour with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.
Neihardt’s book was adapted into a play by the late Christopher Sergel and was first staged in the 1970s at the Folger Theatre in Washington. It later toured to several American Indian reservations.
In 1993, Sergel approached Denver Center Theatre Company’s artistic director, Donovan Marley, with a revised version of the play, but shortly thereafter, the playwright died of a heart attack. His widow, Gayle, continued with the project, and two of Black Elk’s descendants have also been part of the collaboration.
Marley staged the new version in Denver that same year and restaged it again last October in a further revised version, and it is this version that will be seen at the Taper. (A Cantonese version with a cast of Chinese actors opened in Hong Kong last month, also under Marley’s direction.)
The story begins with Black Elk telling the history of the Oglala people to a recalcitrant young relative. He moves back to the time of Columbus and then on into the early 20th Century. The majority of the scenes are set during the 30 years from 1861 through the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
Black Elk’s cautionary saga is told in flashback, with a series of short scenes portraying major historical moments. The vignettes are full of deceptions and massacres and are laced with drumming, dancing and singing--including both traditional songs from many Indian nations as well as new ones composed for the play by Dennis Yerry.
Seated in a traditional winter storytelling circle, the actors rise and move into multiple roles, playing both Native Americans and whites.
“It’s weird playing someone who might be so sadistic, then you turn around and represent your people,” says Los Angeles-based actor Andrew Roa, who plays Taino, Long Trader Sibley, Major Wyncoop, Red Cloud and others. “There were times when I felt overcome by emotion.”
It’s an acting challenge that has even the more experienced cast members strategizing.
“You have to find a way of inhabiting a character that is non-judgmental,” says Canadian Peter Kelly Gaudreault, whose previous credits include classical leads at the respected Stratford Festival in Ontario. “There has to be a strong attempt to be conscientious, to portray a certain amount of dignity.”
Ultimately, the actors are finding themselves confronted with moral ambiguity.
“Sometimes it’s confusing,” says Gaudreault, who plays Crazy Horse, Gen. Custer and others. “A lot of these (white) characters were misguided, but they really believed that what they were doing was good.”
Making the white characters viable while doing justice to the Native Americans was a particular challenge for an actor like Gaudreault, who had neither an extensive prior education in Native American culture nor any experience on previous Native American projects.
“Unlike a number of people in the cast, I didn’t have the benefit of growing up with a strong (Native American) cultural identity,” says Gaudreault, who grew up in Quebec, the son of a Huron and French Canadian father and a Costa Rican Indian mother who also has Spanish and British blood.
At 18, Gaudreault felt the urge to find out more about the Native American way of life and moved onto a Huron reservation in Quebec in 1978 for a year.
“There definitely was a yearning,” he says. “I felt some instinctual need that I associated with my Native American heritage.”
Gaudreault, now 33, was drawn to “Black Elk Speaks” for the same reason: “There were messages in the play that rekindled that initial curiosity that had prompted me to move onto the reservation.”
Yet despite his training in classical theater, he initially felt unprepared.
“In reading the play I felt how far I was from my Native American culture,” Gaudreault says. “I’ve always felt people who were more in touch with their culture would be able to give something in their performance that I couldn’t.”
Since “Black Elk Speaks” premiered, however, winning him critical praise and the 1993-94 best supporting actor award from the Denver Drama Critics’ Circle, Gaudreault is more confident: “I feel now that I have enormous amounts to offer as an artist and as a Native American. There’s more of an equilibrium.”
What’s more, the knowledge has also served the actor outside the theater.
“As dramatic as it may sound, it’s an experience that has revitalized my life,” he says. “I feel that I have a cultural identity which I never had before. It fuels everything I do now, onstage and off.”
When the 1990 film “Dances With Wolves” hit the screens, it turned Native Americans into Hollywood’s Minority of the Moment and made a star of actor Graham Greene.
The Canadian performer, a full-blooded Oneida, was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Kicking Bird and went on to leads in other several other Native American-themed projects, including the feature film “Thunderheart,” HBO’s “The Last of His Tribe” and the Canadian thriller “Clearcut.” He’s also played a lawyer on “L.A. Law” and worked steadily since.
Other “Dances With Wolves” actors, including Floyd Red Crow Westerman and Rodney A. Grant, also went on to major film and TV roles.
So it’s understandable that the cast members of “Black Elk Speaks” are hoping their play might be the “Dances With Wolves” of the stage, providing the performers with the exposure they need to make the lucrative leap to screen careers.
“With so many Native Americans in this project, it should be an eye-opener,” Romero says.
But Greene’s gonzo breakthrough notwithstanding, “Dances With Wolves” didn’t exactly open the full-employment floodgates for Native American actors. Like many minority performers, they still tend to be typecast in race-specific roles--and most of those are clumped in a rare few vehicles.
“There’s been a campaign to have Native American projects here in the States, but there are not a lot of parts for Native Americans outside of those--unless you’re Graham Greene,” Gaudreault says.
To be sure, a few well-traveled Native American actors like Romero have found relatively steady work playing tribal chiefs, warriors and elders in film and TV dramas. They have also managed to cross over into playing other ethnicities, albeit predominantly in supporting roles, thanks to skills honed through both formal training and years of experience in the business.
The trade-off for becoming a star may be to become typecast. The now well-known Greene lately has been cast almost exclusively in Native American roles, albeit major ones. Before becoming known, he played an array of characters including Jews, Latins and Cajuns.
More typically, however, Native Americans find themselves passed over for consideration for traditionally white or classical parts.
“There are fewer roles if you have darker skin, as far as playing the everyday Joe,” says Roa, a Hoopa raised in Nevada who moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1987. “I’ve had better success in L.A. People were more willing to talk to me than in New York.”
“Still, I would like to see it get to the point where you can just be an actor, and not Native American or Hispanic or whatever.”
“They have to accept the way we look, trust what’s there,” adds choreographer-actor Jane Lind, who is of Aleut and Russian ancestry. “The risks have to be taken.”
“I’ve been fortunate,” Gaudreault says. “Because I’m mixed blood, I can pass for many different ethnic types, so I’ve always had quite a large spectrum of work offered to me. Interestingly enough, though, I’ve been victimized by people telling me, ‘You don’t look Native American enough.’ ”
Larry Swalley, who plays Medicine Bottle and others in “Black Elk,” has had to play down his ethnicity. “In all of my venues in theater, I was forced to cut my hair or I wouldn’t be onstage,” he says. “You have to decide what kind of compromises you’re going to make.”
Swalley, a three-quarter Lakota born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, speaks from experience: “After college, you don’t make much of a career, especially as a Native American. I went looking for work, and I was told that they had nothing for me. I did a couple of auditions, but it was more like they were just filling their quota by auditioning minorities.”
Swalley served in the Navy and worked as a traditional sun dancer. He ventured some small theater projects of his own in South Dakota, then “Black Elk” came along.
“Black Elk Speaks” has made Swalley want to work not just on Native American plays but also other projects. “I would like to be thought of just as an actor,” he says.
For women, opportunities are even more limited, says Lind: “We are almost unheard of in the field of drama. It’s always about romanticizing the male warrior, never the woman. The women are so low, it’s amazing. You birth them and you’re background.”
Lind is also quick to point out that it isn’t just Hollywood that has to improve. She believes strongly that even “Black Elk Speaks” has a serious flaw: Like most plays and films about the Native American experience, it relegates women to roles more minor than those they actually play in Native American culture, she says.
“With ‘Black Elk Speaks,’ I wish there were more (to show) the strength of the women,” Lind says. “There’s only one little part--the one I have--and so I try to put more of it in through dance.”
It is an all too familiar problem to Lind, who has worked extensively in Indian dance and acted for such noted theater directors as Peter Brook and Andrei Serban in both avant-garde and classical plays.
“It’s disheartening especially because Native American women play important roles (in their society),” she says. “We do have a voice. Women are also warriors when they have to be. We have the least visibility, and yet we’re the strongest.”
The problem is not, however, simply a matter of the dominance of male playwrights.
“There are some female writers, but some of them are still romancing the image of the warrior,” Lind says. “But when you’re in the story circle (in Native American tribal life), the image of the female is strong. I don’t understand why it hasn’t made that step (into the drama).”
One step that might facilitate the cause is training. The Canadian government has sponsored schools for Native American artists, such as the Native Earth theater school, alma mater of Greene and others, but in the United States, Native Americans have much less access to conservatory schooling.
Romero and others involved with “Black Elk Speaks” are, however, creating a scholarship program for Native American artists to study at the Denver Center. Fund-raisers are set to take place during the play’s Los Angeles run.
Even more significant, perhaps, will be what audiences take away from the production. Cast members are hoping the play will call into question longstanding stereotypes and misapprehensions.
These hopes are not new. Romero, for one, has shared the feelings of many of the chiefs he has played.
“All of them seem to have this same wish, that the relationship with the people that came to this country could have been more honest to start with,” Romero says. “It’s so simple, and it just wasn’t so.”
“The essential message is about bringing people together,” Gaudreault says of “Black Elk Speaks.”
“You don’t come away whistling a tune,” Romero adds, “but you have a feeling of hope."*
* “Black Elk Speaks,” Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Thursday-Feb. 26. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m. $28-$35.50. (213) 972-0700.