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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Penumbra Theatre Company, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers
(front-back) Maya Washington, George A. Keller and Donna Jackson
It’s no secret that America is a country obsessed by race. It’s really no surprise. Our country’s professed “melting pot” runs counter to the experiences of generations of immigrants, not to mention that of African Americans and Native Americans.

Those last two collide in Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, an intriguing new play by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. that gets a solid production to open the 29th season at the Penumbra Theatre Company.

Set on an eastern Montana reservation, the play centers on the Robe family. They are, in the derogatory words of some of the others in their community, “breeds.” Their grandfather was black and their father suffered for his heritage. The four children show their mixed heritage: two have African features, the other two have Native American features. The eldest, Craig, has returned for his niece’s traditional naming ceremony, but it doesn’t take long for his inner demons and longstanding issues with his brother Brent to come to the surface.

Thankfully, the underlying theme stays there - under the surface. The conflict between siblings is something much easier to grasp, and allows audiences of all backgrounds to engage in the deeper issues that lie between the quartet. The play doesn’t offer an easy, movie-of-the-week solution for their conflict; instead, the family celebrates minor victories and suffers great defeat over the day that the play is set.

Penumbra Artist Director Lou Bellamy directs a solid, if somewhat static, production. The staging is fairly simple, but all of that works well to keep the focus where it should be - on the very human drama playing itself out on stage.

James Craven takes on the role of Craig with smoldering intensity. His pain and anger is never far from the surface, and that shows throughout the performance. There are also some nice touches in his performance, especially when dealing with his niece (a solid performance by Maya Washington) and his brother-in-law Stevie (a warm and funny turn by M. Cochise Anderson). The rest of the Robe family - Jake Hart as Brent, freedome bradley as younger brother Elmo and George A. Keller as sister Carol - work well with Craven to craft a realistic and nuanced family.

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers shows another side of race relations in the United States. And like everywhere else, it is a messy affair without any easy answers. But its deeper values - that of families, siblings and conflicts that have no easy answer - are what carry the show from the head to the heart.

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers runs through Oct. 15. Call 651-224-3180 for information.

Photo: Ann Marsden


Guthrie Theater, Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel
Michelle O'Neill and
Sharon Washington

For most of her adult life, Esther has made her way in the world by crafting “intimate apparel” for women in New York City during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Yet as Esther crafts these most personal items for ladies of different classes, she hasn’t experienced this kind of intimacy on her own.

Playwright Lynn Nottage lays Esther’s desire for this closeness at the center of Intimate Apparel, currently running at the Guthrie Theater. Intimate Apparel is as delicate as one of Esther’s undergarments, and gets a reading from the Guthrie worthy of the material.

The child of former slaves, Esther made her way from the country of North Carolina to the bustle of New York City at 17. For the 18 years since, she has lived as “a woman alone,” spending her days sewing and saving money. The change comes from George Armstrong, who begins to write to her while he is working on the Panama Canal.

The arc of their relationship may fall along predicted paths, but not so much because of cliché but because Nottage draws her characters so clearly that their actions always seem natural.

The Off Broadway production of the play won several major awards including the 2004 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play, explores turn-of-the-20th-century society through a handful of characters. Along with Esther and George, we meet two of her clients - a high society lady, Mrs. Van Buren and a prostitute Mayme - a Jewish cloth salesman, Mr. Marks, and her somewhat domineering landlady, Mrs. Dickson. None of the characters ever feel like they are shorthand for their entire segment of society, instead they exist primarily as people trying to make their way in the world.

Director Timothy Bond and the six performers craft a exquisite production, with some of the most beautiful moments coming from small gestures and actions not taken. The very best moments are between Esther, played with weary grace by Sharon Washington, and Mr. Marks, an excellent turn by Ron Menzel. Their attraction is clear from the very first moment they are on stage together, as is the impossibility of their relationship due to factors of race and religion.

The rest of the cast is equally excellent, from Sterling K. Brown’s multi-faceted George to the supporting players - Isabell Monk O’Connor as Mrs. Dickson, Cassandra F. Freeman as Mayme and Michelle O’Neill as Mrs. Van Buren - who create living, breathing characters in every moment on stage.

Intimate Apparel isn’t a loud or epic show, but instead packs its biggest punch in the quietest moments. Bond never lets the size of the Guthrie overwhelm the proceedings. Instead, the audience is drawn into the private chambers and lives of these characters, who will live in the mind long after the final curtain call.

Intimate Apparel runs through Oct. 23 at the Guthrie Theater. Call 1-612-377-2224 or 1-877-44-STAGE for tickets and more information.

Photo: Photo copyright Michal DANIEL, 2005


Guthrie Theater, Macbeth

Often, concept Shakespeare - Richard III in World War II, King Lear in spacesuits, fill in your favorite here - sets my teeth on edge. This new production of Macbeth, created by London’s Out of Joint theater and presented at the Guthrie Lab, sets the Scottish play in the chaos of West Africa, and is at turns intriguing, frustrating, exhilarating and infuriating. I can’t say that I enjoyed the two hours I spent in the theater, but I’m certainly glad to have gone through the experience.

When faced with a non-traditional production like this, I ask myself two questions: Do I understand Shakespeare’s play better?; and Does the play help me understand the unusual setting better? It’s pretty much a “no” on both counts here. I didn’t come away with any fresh insights into Macbeth’s actions or the state and plight of Africa.

Yet there is no question that what is happening on stage is amazing to look at. Costume designer Es Devlin (who also crafted the set) does an amazing job of mixing the African and Scottish worlds together. The performers pour on the intensity, especially Danny Sapani in the title role and Ben Onwukwe as Duncan. In the face of this, Raquel Cassidy’s Lady Macbeth feels completely out of place. Her more traditional reading does not fit amid the epic chaos of the production.

This is a Macbeth much more about the physical - the visceral, really - than the words. In fact, if you go at the Lab or elsewhere on the tour, you may want to brush up on the action of the play, because much of the dialogue is hard to either hear or follow. And there were some comfort issues - several patrons (including myself) stood through the show as their was a lack of seats, while the impact of a moment during a banquet was lost to me since I was standing in the back and couldn’t see a thing.

Yet whenever these problems threatened to overwhelm the show, there would be a moment of stunning beauty. The image of an assassin slowly retreating offstage to the sound of a crying child, leaving behind a frozen tableau of performers and audience, until - suddenly - the child’s cries were silenced, will stay with me longer than any ache in my legs after standing for two hours.

Macbeth closed October 2 at the Guthrie Lab. The Out of Joint tour continues in North America, Europe and Africa through the year.


- Ed Huyck



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