How the West Was Really Won : The team behind the hit play 'Buffalo Soldier' takes a post-Vietnam view of race, war and American history.

Janice Arkatov is a Los Angeles free-lance writer specializing in theater

Mitch Hale is happy to bite the bullet--metaphorically--right from the start.

Hale is the author of the critically acclaimed "Buffalo Soldier" (just extended at Theatre/Theater in Hollywood), a fictional drama about black cavalry soldiers in 1874 Texas. He is not a combat veteran. And he's not black.

"I was cast in (John DiFusco's veteran-created Vietnam War play) 'Tracers' in Seattle in 1987--the first noncombat veteran cast," explains the playwright, 38, whose own tenure in the military was spent as an M.P. on a California military base from 1975 to 1978.

"While I was researching Vietnam, I came across a book called 'Bloods'--interviews with black veterans from Vietnam. What struck me about that war were the black soldiers on the front line and in the bush, fighting people of color. The North Vietnamese were very good at spreading propaganda: Often they'd put signs on trees saying, 'There's no reason for us to fight each other--the white man is the enemy.' It helped to build the Black Panther movement there."

In "Buffalo Soldier," Native Americans are the quarry. The African American soldiers of the 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment--often overlooked in historical accounts of the period--are the instrument of their white superiors in an effort to "patrol, protect and secure the American frontier," which essentially means systematically and brutally annihilating the Native American "enemy."

Hale's story focuses on three African American soldiers--First Sgt. Isaac Williams (James Reynolds), Cpl. Jofum Wymo (Anthony Lee) and Pvt. Benjamin Kewconda (Tyrone Granderson Jones)--their white superior, Capt. Caleb Cooney (DiFusco) and their Native American prisoner, Chief Quanah Parker (Cort McCown). During the course of an evening, the tensions that erupt are multilevel and multiracial: between the soldiers and their captain, between the soldiers and the defiant Native American--and mostly, between the soldiers themselves.

Although this staging marks the play's official premiere, Hale workshopped it last year in Seattle at Angry Red Planet (where he was artistic director), and the show met considerable resistance from the African American community before its opening.

"After the reviews came out and the word of mouth started, the problem just went away," Hale emphasizes. Yet at the same time, the Denver-reared writer acknowledges an emotional gap between himself and his characters: "The story is bigger than me--and it captures an experience I didn't have. I cannot imagine feeling second-class. I do not have the experience of growing up in a society and people being afraid of me or looking down at me. What's mystifying to me about the script is that the characters show that existence, that experience--and I don't know how they got it."

"Buffalo Soldier" director/executive producer Jeff Murray (who was introduced to the play by cast member DiFusco) also approached the material from an outsider's vantage point.

"It was a period of history of which I had minimal awareness--so doing the research was fascinating," says the Welsh-born, Canadian-reared Murray, who immigrated to the United States in 1979 and founded Theatre/Theater with his partner and wife Nicolette Chaffey in 1981. "Before coming to America, my perception was that the melting pot works, and that we're all in this together. My real-life experience has shown me that the divisions are deeper, also modern in implication. But I still believe that we're in this together. We have a mutual heritage, and we have to deal with it together."

For Murray, 47, whose producing credits at Theatre/Theater include "Creeps," "Bullpen," "Immaculate Heart" and "Be-Bop-a-Lula," the play has created a challenging work environment.

"I don't have a historical connection to half the problem, but I do have a connection to the other half," he insists. "So the balance is finding what the relationship is. Rehearsals were so exciting. With these guys, the issues are very dynamic. I got called on many choices that represented an 'unenlightened' point of view. In turn, I found myself calling people on their (acting) choices--when they were turning 1874 choices into 1995 choices." Murray summarizes the play's appeal: "It's an adventure story, a relationship play. But in the end, it's really a teaching."

For Hale (whose next play, "Monkey Tribe," will tackle animal rights), the education began several years ago.

"I learned so much doing 'Tracers,' about the feeling of being under fire," he says of the landmark anti-war anthem, which played locally at the Odyssey Theatre (1980) and Coronet Theatre (1985) and was filmed last year in a restaging at UCLA. (In the film version, Hale--reprising his stage role of Babysan--was again the only noncombat veteran in the cast.) "When I first did the play, I read so many books, did so much research, that by the time we opened I was out of my mind," he says half-jokingly. "We called it P.T.S.: Post-'Tracers' Syndrome."

Guilt was one of the biggest factors. "I felt guilty for feeling like I'd been there--when I hadn't--and also guilty for not being there," Hale admits with a sigh. "But I'm cool about it now. Doing 'Tracers' helped me understand the war. And it was the greatest experience of my life as an artist."

Consequently, everything that came his way after "Tracers" never quite measured up. "It's so difficult to find stuff with meaning as an actor," he says glumly. "One of my problems was I couldn't abide auditioning for crap--and I'd sometimes go off on auditions, get myself a bad reputation. So I've really pulled back the last seven years, done only small things until (the filmed version of) 'Tracers.' It starts to make you crazy; I'd be panicky if the phone didn't ring every two hours. Now I have a lot more control over what I do."


Since 1988, Hale has focused his energies on writing, churning out eight plays--three of which deal with the war experience. "Bao Chi" is about survivor guilt and a Vietnam-era conscientious objector. "Painted Cakes" (which was mounted locally at the Skylight Theatre in 1992) tells of a homeless Vietnam veteran who stumbles into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When he's writing, he says, he always has "three plays going at the same time. I never know which one will come to fruition first."

The successful sojourn at Theatre/Theater is also a family undertaking of sorts. Hale's fiancee, Diana Strople (whom he met when she catered last year's opening-night party for "Buffalo Soldier" in Seattle), is co-producing with Chaffey, Murray's wife of 25 years. (Chaffey and Murray met as acting students at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1969 and have an 18-year-old daughter.) Yet in spite of the female presence on the producing end, the play remains an unapologetically male affair.

"Men at war is a comfortable arena for me," Hale concedes, "that strange thing that happens to guys in a violent situation--the adrenaline rush and pure-life experience of killing."

When it comes to audience response, "women who come to the show really enjoy it--the story seems to transcend the subject," he says earnestly. "But it is a guy play. There's a lot of testosterone going around."

* "Buffalo Soldier," Theatre/Theater, 1713 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Ends April 7. $15-$20. (213) 850-6941.

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