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October 26, 2014:

Buffalo Soldier reviewed by Rob Stevens

Mitch Hale’s play, Buffalo Solider, about the “all negro” tenth cavalry was a hit when it was first staged in Los Angeles 20 years ago. It may have been because the material was fresh and new at the time or because the director and cast then were more competent than those involved with the current revival at the El Portal’s Monroe Forum space.

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The material is interesting. The U.S. Army used its black soldiers to eradicate the red men in the Wild West after the Civil War. Corporal Wymo (Tony Williams), a former slave who still has nightmares of being whipped on his master’s plantation, feels the Army’s policy against the Indians is misguided. They are still human beings. His Boston raised and educated First Sargent Williams (Will Catlett) hates them and enjoys killing them while he tries to assimilate them onto reservation life. Private Kewconda (Kendall Johnson) should never have enlisted because he just can’t seem to follow an order. Their new white commanding officer Captain Cooney (Daniel Billet) is not much of a horseman yet he’s been put in charge of a dangerous reconnaissance mission deep into hostile Comanche territory. By dumb luck they happen to capture Quanah Parker (Wasim No’mani), the Army’s most wanted renegade.

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Parker is intelligent and plays mind games, urging the soldiers, especially Wymo, to revolt against the white men who still hold him in slavery and join with the Indians. There are some very interesting points made in Hale’s writing but as he states in his extensive program notes, they might be better explored in a novel or a film. He has crammed too much into 90 minutes and his director, Sarah Wagner, has failed to bring it to life. Often the actors’ dialects are so heavy they are unintelligible. At other times their voices are so quiet you can’t hear the dialogue and in a theatre that is only four rows deep that is not acceptable. The resultant acting comes across as amateurish. Wagner also stages a lot of action on the floor in front of the first row, making it un-viewable even from the second row. Aaron Francis’s set design should have been all raised platforms so the sightlines were not blocked.

El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. Ends Nov. 30. 818-508-4200 or www.elportaltheatre.com.

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