History Theater's play "George Bonga: Black Voyageur" probes identity politics of the 1830s

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Listen: History Theater play probles identity politics of the 1830s

MPR’s Euan Kerr interviews the creators of new play “George Bonga: Black Voyageur.”

The History Theater pulls together a dream team of playwright Carlyle Brown, director Marion McClinton, and actor James A. Williams to tell the story of African American voyageur George Bonga. The story focuses on a time in 1837 he was sent into the wilderness during a winter storm in pursuit of an Ojibwe warrior accused of murdering a white man. What was once perhaps viewed as a historical oddity now becomes an examination of the racial tensions of pre-statehood Minnesota.


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SPEAKER: Very old and very talented friends are about to present the story of one of early Minnesota's great characters. This weekend in St Paul, the History Theater opens its new play George Bonga, Black Voyager. As Euan Kerr reports, it examines Minnesota's very different identity politics of almost 200 years ago.

EUAN KERR: A couple of days ago, as people stamped the snow storm off their feet as they arrived for rehearsal at the History Theater, actor James A. Williams saw it as useful for the play.

JAMES WILLIAMS: So this is what it looked like tracking in the snow.

CARLYLE BROWN: Oh, yeah, yeah.

EUAN KERR: Williams plays George Bonga in a story where tracking in the snow plays a big part. Director Marion McClinton says even when he was alive back in the 1830s, Bonga was a mythic figure.

MARION MCCLINTON: He was possibly the best tracker, best trapper, and made some money in the voyager business.

EUAN KERR: But George Bonga also stood out for another reason. He was the grandson of slaves. His mother was Ojibwe. He also towered over most people.

CARLYLE BROWN: He was just the quintessential notion of difference.

EUAN KERR: Playwright Carlyle Brown.

CARLYLE BROWN: He was big and Black but half Indian, considered a Black white man by the Indians, a white man by the whites in a world that was, you know, not like we would imagine today.

EUAN KERR: A photograph of Bonga shows him as a strong, stern faced African-American wearing a black hat. Yet, he described himself as one of the first two white people born in the Minnesota territory. Carlyle Brown says it made perfect sense back then.

CARLYLE BROWN: To Native Americans, he was white because he lived-- culturally, he lived like a white man.


EUAN KERR: Then in 1837, George Bonga took a job, which was to cement his name in state history. He was sent to track and capture an Ojibwe warrior called Ghe-gagwa sgang, accused of murdering a white man. The six-day chase occurred in the depth of winter. Bonga returned with the fugitive, and Carlyle Brown says it resulted in a historic event.

CARLYLE BROWN: The first criminal trial in the territory. The trial itself had a pretty crazy outcome.

EUAN KERR: He doesn't want to reveal that outcome, but it was to haunt Bonga for years.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Damn you, Ghe-gagwa sgang, damn you. I always thought that you would come here one day to seek your vengeance with a hatchet or a knife or a pistol or your bare hands even. But no. You come here with the worst weapon of all, you talking me to death with your endless questions about who I am. Well, you want to know who that is? None of your damn business, that's who.

CARLYLE BROWN: I guess it's the story of a man struggling to embrace all of his identities and whose, in some ways, is always being defined by other people. I think that's the story, right, Marion?


CARLYLE BROWN: It's something like that.

EUAN KERR: Carlyle Brown, Marion McClinton, and James A. Williams are old friends, but this is the first time all three have worked together on a play. It's a powerhouse combination. Both Brown and McClinton have had success on Broadway. McClinton calls Williams and Brown among the best in the country. He says he loves how Brown's multilayered scripts challenge him.

MARION MCCLINTON: I like the way he thinks, the way he sees the world, what he does with it in his plays. The only other writer I've really felt that with is August Wilson.

EUAN KERR: And McClinton worked with Wilson for years. Meanwhile, Brown praises McClinton's skill at working with actors to really understand a script and the patterns in its words.

CARLYLE BROWN: And the way the words are aligned, the duration and the length and the rhythm there's just as much meaning in those things than the words themselves and what the words mean.

EUAN KERR: In some ways, George Bonga is an old friend too. Marion McClinton says he first did a play about him in 1982, and he did another a few years later.

MARION MCCLINTON: So when Carlyle talked to me about the play and he said, it's about George Bonga, I laughed and I said, well, maybe one more go round with George, one more go around.

EUAN KERR: But McClinton and Brown both agree this show will be kind of special. Covering the arts. I'm Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio News.


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