Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

George Bonga: Black Voyageur
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Amish Project and Trainspotting


Marisa Carr, Eric Knutson, and James A. Williams
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
History Theatre is a remarkable Saint Paul institution, time and again unearthing fascinating slices of history, culture, and the lives of great men and woman from Minnesota and the northern plains, and bringing them to life through entertaining and compelling works of theater. With George Bonga: Black Voyage, now receiving its world premiere, History Theatre has been true to its aim in finding rich source material. Unfortunately, the resulting play falls short.

The story of George Bonga is absolutely worthy of examination. He was born in 1802, near present day Duluth. His paternal grandparents were indentured servants to a French fur trader in northern Michigan and were granted freedom when the trader died. George's father, a free black man, married an Ojibway woman. As a child, George was sent to Montreal to be educated, and his fluency with French, English, and Ojibway made him a great asset for negotiating among the groups. He was a renowned tracker and took part in several high profile expeditions, including the search for the source of the Mississippi River and the hunt for murder suspect Che-ga-wa-skung—the latter a key plot line of the play. Bongo also ran trading posts, opened one of the first lake resorts in northern Minnesota, and witnessed the 1867 signing of the treaty that created the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwest Minnesota.

The play spotlights two key incidents of Bonga's life. The first act has Bonga relate a dream to his wife, creating a flashback account of his pursuit of Che-ga-wa-skung, an Ojibway Indian who had killed the son of prominent fur trader William Aitkin, the result of a romantic triangle gone wrong. After six grueling days tracking alone through the Minnesota winter, Bonga captured Che-ga-wa-skung. On the journey to bring Che-ga-wa-skung back to the settlement at Leach Lake, the prisoner goads Bonga about his identity. Is he a black man, an Indian, or a white man? Bonga rebukes Che-ga-wa-skung, asserting that he doesn't need to choose, but the questions clearly unsettle him.

The second act deals with Bongo's campaign against Edwin Clark, chief federal agent for Indian affairs in the territory. Clark would not issue Bongo or other traders licenses to compete against two businessmen who, with Clark's complicity, monopolize trade with the Indians. Bongo has written to Joel Bassett, a federal agent of lower rank, in hope of Bassett's support against Clark. No sooner does he finish reading the letter to his wife Ashwinn than Bassett arrives with a shipment of inventory for Bongo's trading post—inventory he will be unable to sell as long as Clark denies him a license. The two men first brood over the obstacles to change, then agree "two men sitting on boxes, talking while they chew on maple sweets" are as good as any to put the wheels of change in motion. The play concludes when a surprising visitor shows up and prompts Bongo to again consider the question of his identity.

There is a lot to think about in Bonga's story, and even in the play. However, the play does not do much to ignite our thinking. We are told about things that have already happened and listen to speculation about things that will come to pass, but virtually nothing happens on stage in terms of dramatic action or characters' change of heart. Several scenes depicting Bonga's pursuit of Che-ga-wa-skung, cutting back and forth between the two men, are as close to action as the play gets, but even here, the slow, methodical pace of their progress robs the chase of any excitement, let alone any doubt about the outcome.

We learn about Bonga's childhood and parentage when he retells it to Ashwinn, information she certainly has heard before. Che-ga-wa-skung tells us he was driven to murder a man because his desperate love for a woman was thwarted, but we see no evidence of this passion, neither in his language and emotional tenor, nor an actual scene between the two. We hear about Edwin Clark's exploitation of the Indians, first by way of exposition in the opening scene, again (in more detail) in the letter Bonga reads to Ashwinn, and once more just minutes later when Joel Bassett arrives. Yet, with no visible representation of hardship caused by Clark's corrupt office, emotions are not stirred even when the ethical question is clear.

The play has numerous contrivances, such as Bassett's arrival immediately after Bonga reads his letter to Ashwinn. For example, no sooner does Ashwinn mention that it looks like a storm is in the air than, flash, bang, lightning and thunder erupt. (To be fair, the light and sound effects are very well done.) As a character, Ashwinn serves little purpose other than to listen to Bonga lay out the play's plot, in act one as a dream, in act two as a letter.

Given the static nature of the play, the cast has a challenge in terms of enlivening their characters. James A. Williams imbues Bonga with an imposing presence and noble qualities—humility, patience, and wisdom. He also succeeds in making real Bonga's ambivalence regarding his racial identity. However, his speech has the inflection of a contemporary African American. How does a man raised in the north woods, educated in Montreal, with virtually no contact with other black people (the 1850 census counted Bonga as one of 14 Negroes in the entire Minnesota territory) acquire that accent? It sets Bonga apart from his native environment.

Marissa Carr has little to do other than seem, by turns, tolerant, skeptical, and supportive of her husband. As a husband and wife who have raised adult children, there seems to be little emotional connection between Carr and Williams, though this may be in keeping with statements about the pragmatic forces that brought them together. Jake Waid is more effective as Che-ga-wa-skung when he is challenging Bonga than in his protestations of love. C.W. Bearshield as Che-ga-wa-skung's brother, and Erick Knutson as both white men in the play—William Aitkin and Joel Bassett—do what they can with material that doesn't require much of them.

As mentioned, lighting and sound design are top notch, and Trevor Bowen's costume designs are terrific, lending the characters a boost of authenticity. The set design is fairly simple: the cutaway front of George and Ashwinn's log cabin on one side, a shrub covered hillock that seems intended to be a bluff on the other. The whole piece is directed by the esteemed Marion McClinton as a collection of historical and cultural talking points, rather than as a fully knit narrative.

After a terrific start to the season with the Glensheen, and a repeat of the ever-popular Buddy Holly Story, History Theater steps into far deeper subject matter and broaches more complicated issues with George Bonga: Black Voyageur. For that, they are to be commended. That the execution does not live up to its potential is a rare disappointment from this invaluable theater.

George Bonga: Black Voyageur continues at History Theatre through February 28, 2016. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $20.00 -$38.00; senior (age 60+) and under 30 discounts available. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Writer: Carlyle Brown; Director: Marion McClinton; Scenic Design: Dean Holzman; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen ; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Kellie Larson; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Fight Choreography: Heidi Batz Rogers; Stage Manager: Janet L. Hall; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson.

Cast: C.W. Bearshield (Brother of Che-ga-wa-skung), Marisa Carr (Ashwinn Bonga), Eric Knutson (William Aitkin, Joel Bassett), Jake Waid (Che-ga-wa-skung), James A. Williams (George Bonga).


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