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Finding the heart of Buffalo Soldiers

William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.ís Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers has been working its way through the creative pipeline for years and has finally arrived at Trinity Repertory Company (December 2-January 8). Yellow Robe, 45, is African-American as well as a member of the Assiniboine Nation, which is located on the Fort Peck Sioux reservation in Montana. He has written more than 45 plays, including Better-n-Indins, which was staged at Perishable Theatre in February.

The Buffalo Soldiers referred to in the play were the members of black Union army regiments that fought after the Civil War, mostly in the western Indian wars. The play deals with the race issue that has been troubling three generations of a family and which comes to a head when a man considered too black to be native comes home.

In 2001 the play got a staged reading at Trinity Rep, where Yellow Robe was a playwright-in-residence until last year. It is being produced in association with Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. Penumbra Theatre artistic director Lou Bellamy staged the original production as well as the current one in Providence. An associate professor in the department of theatre and dance, he has been a University of Minnesota faculty member for 28 years.

Yellow Robe and Bellamy spoke recently from on the road in Connecticut and at home in St. Paul, respectively.

Youíve both had acting experience. How has that altered how you write, Bill, and how you direct, Lou?

Yellow Robe: Well, it really has been an interesting process, because I can actually stand up and say: "Wow, Iíve really got to do that rewrite right now. Iíve got to change that ó thatís horrible!"

When I was a student at the University of Montana, I wanted to act and they said, "Well, youíre a good actor, but we have no Indian roles." And when I wrote plays they would go: "Bill, thatís a good play, but we have no Indian actors to do your play." So it was a catch-22.

Bellamy: I began as an actor and I respect actors and want to see them look good. I want to see them be true to their nature on the stage. And Bill feels the same way. He made changes in his scripts, changed the words when he heard them given breath in rehearsal. He just said, "Well, this is what this is, but those words arenít right for this actor to say." And so he constantly rewrote and modified ó not the intent of the sentence, but the words to come out of a certain personís mouth.

As Buffalo Soldiers took shape, from the writing through being staged, how has it changed from what you first imagined?

Yellow Robe: It was a long process. It started back in 1996. My first wife passed away and it was under her encouragement that I wrote a play that dealt with the African-American/Native American issue from my perspective, because I was an African-American and had not written anything about my own experience. And so I sat down within two nights of when she passed away and wrote the first draft.

Since Iíve been working with Lou, Iíve done some major cutting. Working with Lou is great because, one, heís a director thatís very humble ó he actually stated something that was very important, similar to what Bob Jaffe said when he did Better-n-Indins. He stated: "I donít know." But Lou really found the heart of the play.

Lou, would you respond to that?

Bellamy: What I do know is dramatic structure. And I know the African-American experience from a lifetime of studying that culture and on stage. Iím a theater craftsperson, so I know how to do that. The specifics of this story that Billís written needed lots of interpretation all the time. Itís similar to what happens when people outside of the African-American culture try to distill it. They miss nuances, and many times the communication inside of a culture is based on nuance, not the words. So Bill being in rehearsal ó it just couldnít have been done without him in the room.

Youíre talking about clarifying?

Bellamy: No. I think that people communicate in ways other than words. So that a way of standing, a certain posture, a look, eye contact, a way of walking, is so meaningful. And that is the cultural statement of who we are as people. In this society, unfortunately, the European sort of cultural model is the dominant one, so we sort of go to that by default. Well, we went a different way. We went into a different kind of model for talking. When the right audience is in the room for this piece, you can hear them reacting to that meta language, if you will.

Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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