Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux, was a man uniquely situated to tell the story of his people's genocide. His father participated in the Fetterman Massacre in 1865, in which the Native Americans left not even a dog alive. Black Elk fought as a child at Little Bighorn and as a man at Wounded Knee. He was cousin to Crazy Horse. He lived to be quite old in the hills of South Dakota, and that is where John Neihardt found him and published his tale in 1932.
With the revival of interest in Native American issues in the early 1970s, "Black Elk Speaks" was republished, and at around the same time, playwright Christopher Sergel transformed the story into a theater work. It since has had several incarnations, including the most recent staged by the Denver Center Theatre Company in 1993 and again last year; this production opened Thursday night at the Mark Taper Forum.
It is a strained yet moving piece of theater, in which one can sympathize with the playwright's task. Sergel, who died in 1993 before the production was complete, dramatized a story whose hideous and well-known outcome dictates an audience's emotional response at every turn.
This is a play in which no sentiment is allowed to unfold spontaneously. Encouraged by the solemn pounding of the on-stage drums, the audience is compelled to be respectful at all times, except toward the murdering bluecoats, who are portrayed as either pure evil or "F Troop"-style bumbling idiots. They are never worthy adversaries fighting out of real fear or conviction. While history has shown the perfidy of the invading whites, the simplicity of "Black Elk's" dramaturgy fetishizes the victimization of the Native Americans even as it obviously and dutifully regards that victimization with awe.
In one scene, Yellow Woman (Jane Lind) faces the audience and relates the horror of witnessing Colonel Chivington's soldiers butcher women and babies at Sand Creek. In desperate pain, she recalls sending a little child out to surrender, only to see it killed in front of her. Her understandable hysteria culminates in a strangled cry: "They will not let us live!" As a character's revelation, it is a moment of singular horror. But the scene is played at such an emotional pitch that it becomes overbearing.
At times "Black Elk" transcends its status of Theater as Penance. As the narrator Black Elk, Ned Romero cuts a dignified and elegant image, and he gives an impressively restrained performance, full of grace.
Also, the tale of Little Crow, played with complex melancholy by Kenneth Martines, encapsulates the impossible stranglehold of a people who face extermination whether they fight bravely or, like Little Crow, attempt to remain sane and peaceable in the face of endless betrayal. Little Crow's debate with his tribe over this issue, though, smacks of dialogue left over from the high-school Thanksgiving day pageant. "War! This is foolish talk!" is answered by "It is more foolish to starve!"
But where words fail, images tell the story. The death of Crazy Horse (Peter Kelly Gaudreault) offers a heart-rending tableau in which the soldiers who have murdered him keep the great chief's people from comforting him even at his death. At such moments, the sacred act of remembering great cruelty and great suffering seems uncontrived and unforced.
Don Darnutzer paints some lovely elegiac lighting on the simple set provided by Bull Curley--an asymmetrical backdrop of animal skins with graceful and muted drawings of horses and antelope. The backdrop recedes at one point to form a pit for four musicians whose powerful drumming sounds a pure and arresting evocation of a lost culture.
The drummers also sing songs of mourning, war and celebration. The haunting, powerful tunes, which seem to closely guard the secrets of communal emotion from uncomprehending ears, manage to be painfully eloquent. In the same vein, Stephan Ray Swimmer performs an impressive dance with dozens of hoops to symbolize the unity of disparate tribes, a unity that comes only under the specter of complete annihilation.
Despite the obvious appeal of the color, the movement, the sounds and the spirituality of its main character, "Black Elk Speaks" is often oppressively ennobling under the direction of Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, which originated this production and which co-produces it here with the Taper. The stolid quality of Marley's direction announces itself early on when the Native Americans gather round in a circle to hear Black Elk's tale and all mutter "MMMmm!" and nod at each other in unison when he says something wise.
In Sergel's version, Black Elk tells his story to a scowling grandson (David Medina), whose suspenders and fancy watch tell us he wants to find his success in the white man's world on the white man's terms. The play's rather conventional framing of Black Elk's story ignores one important real-life irony: In order for his story to be heard, Black Elk had to entrust it to a white man--Neihardt.
With that issue left unaddressed, the spiritual conversion of Black Elk's scowling grandson is as predictable as time. Like the audience, he is given no choice but to do his duty, mourn, and repent white ways.
"Black Elk Speaks," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m., Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 26. $28-$35. TicketMaster: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Ned Romero: Black Elk
David Medina: Hoksila
Ensemble: John Belindo, Stuart Bird, Seth Bissonette, Jack Burning, Janice Conway, Bernard Cottonwood, Luke Dubray, James Apaumut Fall, Peter Kelly Gaudreault, Dane LeBeau, Jane Lind, Kenneth Little Hawk, Kenneth Martines, Miguel Najera, Gracie Red Shirt-Tyon, Andrew Roa, Maria Antoinette Rogers, Adan Sanchez, Larry Swalley, Stephan Ray Swimmer, Kateri Walker, Dennis Yerry.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles presents the Denver Center Theatre Company production. Based on the book by John G. Neihardt. Adapted by Christopher Sergel. Directed by Donovan Marley. Set design by Bill Curley. Costumes by Andrew V. Yelusich. Lighting by Don Darnutzer. Sound by David R. White and Jon Gottlieb. Choreography by Jane Lind. Musical composition and direction by Dennis Yerry. Production stage manager Lyle Raper.