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Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers at Trinity Rep

Racism is set and subset in William S. Yellow Robe Jr.’s heartfelt if wooden drama Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, whose world-premiere production is at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company through January 8, in a co-production with Penumbra Theatre Company. An examination of minority-on-minority ostracism, the play is rooted in the dramatist’s personal history as an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Nation who is also of African-American heritage — a descendant, as evoked by the title, of mixed marriage between Native Americans and the post–Civil War black cavalrymen who were their sometime subjugators. The bitter Orwellian irony of the piece is that, as Native pride moves in a positive direction, some "Indins" are considered more "Indin" than others.

The Robe clan of Yellow Robe’s family drama copes in different ways with its racial heritage — ways determined in part by the extent to which each member wears its earmarks. After some year’s absence, oldest sibling Craig has returned to the Montana reservation, where he grew up brawling to defend himself against blatant prejudice. He has come to participate in niece August’s naming ceremony — and perhaps to stay in the place his heart never left. But the bad blood between Craig and brother Brent, who chooses to iron his hair and embrace the status of a full-blood Indian, hasn’t gotten any better. Trying to patch together the family are developmentally disabled but big-hearted brother Elmo and baby sister "Sugar," who is August’s mother.

To one unfamiliar with the award-winning Yellow Robe’s body of work, this play is more compelling in its sociology — and in Penumbra fixture James Craven’s angry yet wounded performance as quick-trigger Craig — than in its craft. Still, Yellow Robe offers an interesting glimpse of a culture little explored in American drama. August Wilson anchors a powerful African-American corner, and Eduardo Machado, Nilo Cruz, and others have contributed to an expanding Latino theater. But Native culture remains rich ore largely unmined.

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers was commissioned by Trinity in connection with its Theater from the Four Directions initiative to develop the works of First Nations playwrights. (Last season the troupe presented Ojibway dramatist Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Buz’Gem Blues.) Yellow Robe’s play ventures with admirable candor into the ceremonial, ramshackle culture of the reservation, exposing racism within racism and the pain it engenders. In the insular world unveiled here, to be an enrolled member of the tribe is key to identity. But ugly truth be known, if you must be a "breed," prejudice prefers a double scoop of Native and white. Unlike Brent, Craig is proud of the loving merger of his grandparents; he’s just sick of waiting for others to accept its worth. "This whole thing of who’s more Indin," he says, "is a sickness beyond thinking."

For all its potential poignancy, Grandchildren, which is written in short scenes set over several days (following a silent, silhouetted flashback to 1885), is marred by awkward exposition and repetitive, histrionic confrontation. Its best moments are almost incidental: a confessional conversation set against a pick-up-truck journey during which the driver gives more attention to taping up an old radio than to the road; the reverence given to unveiling the family drum and surrounding it with the family folding chairs. Then there’s the sheer joy of Yellow Robe’s ending, where August, drawing a native shawl from her pink plastic backpack, presents Uncle Craig with the gift of the family dance passed down by his father, an antic, non-traditional jig deplored by Brent.

The production — which has toured the Midwest and will move on to Eastern cities following its Trinity run — is largely a Penumbra undertaking, and it’s directed by the St. Paul troupe’s artistic director, Lou Bellamy. The spare if sometimes heavy-handed staging is set against Loy Arcenas’s clapboard homestead, whose blue siding suggests big sky. George A. Keller is a grounded, earnest Sugar; M. Cochise Anderson does an admirable turn as her good-natured husband, Stevie; and freedome bradley is both likable and annoying as fast-talking, slow-witted Elmo, grin in place, glasses askew. But as tribal tight-ass Brent, Jake Hart, glowering into space or the bosom of his family, is stiffer and hammier than the Spam that seems so much a staple of reservation life and lore.

Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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