All Over the Map
Beyond Glory in Chicago, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers in St. Paul, and Gorey Stories in Los Angeles.
Also in attendance was Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), one of the awardees whom Lang portrays. A multi-decorated veteran, Inouye endured discrimination as a Japanese-American fighting in the U.S. Army during World War II, lost his right arm during a battle in Italy, and years later won seven elections to the public office that he continues to hold. He wept at Lang's portrayal of him.
Lang had not met beforehand with Inouye or with any of the other depicted veterans, who vary in terms of age, ethnicity, and the wars they survived. He pictures trying to explain the project to Vernon Baker, an 80-year-old African-American vet: "If I went to Vernon Baker's home and said, 'Hi, I'm Stephen Lang. I'm going to be playing you,' what's the best that's going to happen? He's going to look at me and say, 'I was kind of hoping it'd be Denzel or Morgan, but you'd certainly be my third choice.' But if he sees the show in context, the way Daniel Inouye has, it'll make perfect sense to him."
The actor has played a number of soldiers in the past, including Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep in the original Broadway production of A Few Good Men -- the role that Jack Nicholson played in the subsequent film version. His movie credits include Ernest Hemingway's After the Storm, Gettysburg, and Gods and Generals, a film that was ripped apart by critics for perceived Confederate sympathies. "I was not prepared for the viciousness of the attacks," says Lang. "The inhumanity and barbarism of the institution of slavery is not something that we need to even discuss. We know it's a fact. I certainly didn't in any way attempt to sentimentalize Stonewall Jackson."
Has that controversy informed his approach to Beyond Glory, given the fact that America is currently involved in a deeply divisive war? "I love to get into the politics, to talk provocatively, and I've done it many times," says Lang. "I'd love to tell you how I feel about the war and how it relates to the play, but that's not the issue." This sense of neutrality determines which audience members he'll be seen with in public. For example, when Paul Wolfowitz (former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense) came to see the show, Lang was thrilled but didn't want to be photographed with him out of fear that their conversation would be perceived as an endorsement. He emphasized throughout our interview that his current piece is nonpartisan, stating: "It's really for all Americans."
During the late 1800s, African-American soldiers were deployed by the U.S. Army in the so-called "Indian Wars" that forcibly displaced Native-Americans. The men in these military units were dubbed "buffalo soldiers" by their opponents due to their skin color and hair texture. "The buffalo soldiers came out here fighting as free men, yet they were treated as less than human," says playwright William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. "Natives were also considered less than human. It's amazing that the United States government took two tribal peoples and pitted them against each other."
In his new play Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, Yellow Robe examines the legacy of that interaction as embodied in the work's central character, Craig Robe, a part-Native descendent of one of the buffalo soldiers who faces discrimination not only from mainstream society but also from his own tribe. "Craig has been on the road for some time," says Yellow Robe. "He returns home for the naming ceremony of his niece, and this brings him back to the point that started all the hatred and launched him on his journey in the first place. But he comes back with a different objective, which is to conclude the cycle of hatred."
Like his play's protagonist, Yellow Robe is of mixed ethnic heritage. According to its author, the play reflects the fact that more and more people are now claiming to be part Native, whereas in the past this was something that people strove to keep hidden. "You were taught to deny that aspect of you because, in this society, there's so much self-hatred bred into you," says Yellow Robe. "You're taught to hate the way you look, the way you talk. But if you're going to be a whole human being, you must admit to all of this."
Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers is a co-production of Trinity Repertory and Penumbra Theatre Company. The play will open at Penumbra's home base in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 23 before beginning a tour of various Midwestern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic states. Among the scheduled stops are South Dakota, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington D.C., and -- of course -- Rhode Island, where Trinity will present it in December. "This is not the quintessential Native play," Yellow Robe remarks. "It is not the spokesvehicle for all Native tribes. But I hope it will open doors for other Native people and communities to have their words, their stories, and their expressions shared."
In 1978, Gorey Stories -- a play with music adapted from the works of Edward Gorey by Stephen Currens -- debuted on Broadway and closed after one performance. Gorey, a renowned artist and writer, is probably most famous for the Gashlycrumb Tinies in which he depicted the brutal deaths of young children alphabetically (from Amy to Zillah); much of his other work is in a similar vein. Now, the Sacred Fools Theater Company in Los Angeles is reviving the Gorey Stories, beginning September 22 and closing, appropriately enough, on Halloween.
For example, during the scene with the Wuggly Ump -- a giant, ugly creature that devours children -- Towne contrasts the peppy music of the score with the image of terrified tykes trembling onstage. And though the Wuggly Ump was initially going to be portrayed by a large puppet, Towne eventually decided it would be more effective to use shadow puppetry and projected images.
The director first encountered Gorey's works when he was 10 years old. "I thought that my weird thinking wasn't so weird because somebody else's was weirder," he recalls. He has even introduced his five-year-old son, who's interested in insects, to some Gorey tales about bugs -- "but I don't think he'll be coming to the show because he's susceptible to scary things" (Speaking of bugs, Towne is thinking about directing Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis).
Though young children are discouraged from attending Gorey Stories, teenagers are welcome. "But remember," Towne cautions, "several of the stories are about children dying in horrible ways. So I'll leave it up to the parents' judgment."