By Beki Pineda
BLACK ELK SPEAKS. Based on the book by John Neihardt, adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel; directed by donnie l. betts. Produced by the Aurora Fox Theatre (9900 East Colfax, Aurora) through April 10. Tickets available at 303-739-1970 or www.aurorafox.org.
BLACK ELK SPEAKS is a history lesson told and illustrated by the descendants of those who lived through it. It is a tale told with great religiosity and ceremony. Every ethnicity has its own version of its “coming to America” story; this is the story of those who were here to meet them and barely survived the experience.
The character of Black Elk, played by Doug Good Feather, recounts the history of his people to his government-schooled grandson Hoksila, played by Jose Guerrero. As Black Elk tells the stories of The People, the company illustrates both the small triumphs and the devastating losses. The locations move from Minnesota to Colorado, Wyoming and the Black Hills as the settlers push west. Battles large and small—Sand Creek Massacre, Fort Kearney, Little Big Horn, and finally Wounded Knee—are remembered graphically. Black Elk traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show throughout the country, the U.K. and Europe when he was only 23. He married twice and fathered six children, finally making his own journey on the “good Red Road to the Day of Quiet” in 1950.
As a history lesson and a chronicle of the government’s systematic extermination of a culture, this production works. As a riveting theatrical experience, the production falters. If the format of the script is as a story told to the audience from the voice of one actor, that actor must be a gifted storyteller, capturing the audience with the power of his voice, his pacing, his expression. While Good Feather is a powerful presence, he seemed to lack the experience necessary to make the story compelling. The transitions between scenes were slow; the narrative halting and delivered with little energy. In contrast, the scene in which Yellow Road, played by Satye Chavez, describes the Sand Creek Massacre was moving and heartbreaking—storytelling at its best.
Technically it is hard to capture on the small Fox stage the sweep and grandeur of the locations traveled on the way to Wounded Knee. I applaud the Fox for trying; I have no solution to offer except perhaps to have saved this production for their annual outdoor show at Stapleton or for the PACE Center, where they sometimes perform on a bigger stage. As it was, too often clusters of actors seemed to be getting in each other’s way. A long, arduous journey had to be conveyed by a line of people circling the stage again and again.
There were, however, moving images to remember from this production. A beautiful Bird Dancer “flew over” a series of scenes with grace and agility. While not adding to the story, the Hoop Dancer (Nathaniel Bearsheart) who opened the second act was very talented. The use of powder-blue tunics over the tribal garb to indicate the soldiers’ uniforms was clever. It was heartening to see the multigenerational cast work together to tell the story. The final moments of the production, when the cast comes together in solidarity and hope for the future, is very moving.
The mostly Native American cast feels deep passion for the important story they are telling. The authenticity they bring to the production is touching. The pride they feel in their heritage and their culture is obvious. You DO walk away from this production with a sense of wonder at all that Native Americans survived and a sense of shame at what Anglo-Americans brought down on them. So in that sense, the play succeeds.
WOW factor: 7.5