‘Buffalo'ed’: Standout Performances, Needs to Settle and Smooth
Buffaloed: a word meaning “overwhelmed.”
Buffalo soldiers: African-American cavalry troops of the US Army formed after the Civil War. Like the rest of the US Army, they fought against the Indians (Native Americans) till 1890 and against the Spanish during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The outcome of the Spanish-American War was that the US took over Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines from the Spanish as US Territories and Protectorates. (This was also the year that the US annexed the Hawaiian Islands.)
The play Buffalo’ed written by Jeannie Barroga is centered around the Buffalo soldiers remaining in the Philippines after the treaty of 1898 and trying to quell an independence movement by the Filipino people (which reminded me of the US taking over Viet Nam from the French and trying to quell the independence movement of the Vietnamese).
During the war in the Philippines, 15 US soldiers, 6 of them black, defected to the Filipino side. Private David Fagen became notorious as an Insurecto Captain. A bounty of $600 was placed on his head, and the bounty was collected by a Filipino defector who brought in Fagen’s decomposed head. (Many thanks to Google for the ready references!)
Some of Barroga’s Buffalo soldiers are questioning why they are fighting against brown (Filipino) people who want independence while they (African-Americans) are being denied full freedom back in the US. Meanwhile, we see the class differences among the Filipinos who try in various ways to undermine the US efforts.
The set provides a space for the Buffalo soldiers’ camp alternating with a space for Filipino parties (meriendas) and guerilla activities. To the side is a raised platform that can become a back porch in the US, a jungle, a captain’s office, a prison. On display is a US flag with 50 stars, though there should only be 45 in 1898. Some projections onto the white tent include newspaper articles and cartoons of the time. (This creative use of space is by Reb Beau Allen, who also directed.)
The costumes are helpful, especially Doña Luisa’s beautiful Filipino dresses. (Costumes by Danielle Zalopany.) The dance and martial arts performances are exciting. (Choreography by Jonathan Clarke Sypert.)
On opening night the lines were pretty slipshod, with strange silences mixed with awkward overlapping. Nevertheless, a few performances really stood out. First to appear, Maile Kapua’ala, is a mute tomboy who hangs around the camp, begging, and who later finds her voice as a guerilla fighter involved with one of the soldiers. She is eminently watchable and makes her evolution believable.
The three Buffalo soldiers, Linc (Jonathan Carke Sypert), Woodruff (Joseph Kingsley), and Fagen (Q) provide the human face of the conflict from their side: Linc trying to keep up correspondence with his wife although he cannot read or write, Woodruff requesting books and articles about black disenfranchisement back in the US, and Fagen who actually goes over to the other side. Q, who sometimes addresses and interacts with the audience, had the most difficult role and performed it beautifully.
Danielle Zalopany, as Doña Luisa, a member of the assimilated upper class who consider themselves Spanish (she has been educated in arts, languages, music, etc.), is also an insurrection general, working with the lower class native Filipinos. This would be a difficult transition for any actress, but she manages it very well.
Representing the worst aspects of bigotry, misogyny, and cruelty, Jason Kanda, as Captain Calvin Terry, needs to be more sly and less in-your-face. Let the lines do the work.
As always, Kumu is presenting a slice of social history that is educational, something we all may have missed in history class, or something we could stand to be reminded of. This slice is a big one, presented in sometimes wildly varying modes that don’t always mesh well -- the near-melodramatic villainy of Captain Terry, the sophisticated trilingual maneuvering of Luisa, Fagen’s occasional postmodern negotiations with the audience. But it was warmly received by a full house opening night, and the playwright was in town to see it. Hopefully, the production itself will settle down in a day or two and run more smoothly, but please, rehearse the curtain call.