The idea of home, both in abstract and specific terms, taps into our emotional core and exposes our deepest vulnerabilities and anxieties. If returning to where we're from provides no solace--or, worse still, if it never did--our stories become confused things indeed. William S. Yellow Robe Jr.'s new play, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, delves into a man's troubled homecoming with compassion and an unflinching eye. The result is a mixed bag, a show that provides a highly interesting setup but doesn't quite cash in on its promise.
At the outset we have Craig Robe (James Craven), returning to his family home on a Native American reservation. He and his siblings are grandchildren of an Assiniboine woman and an African American Buffalo Soldier. This mixed heritage makes them "breeds" on the reservation--and the object of scorn in some quarters. Craig left years ago amid a cloud of violence and conflict, and has been wandering the greater world. From the moment of his return, he starts bringing up old insults, opening old wounds, and generally behaving like a rancorous prick. Craig sets about alienating each member of his family in original ways, ultimately meeting a young cousin even angrier than he is, and a pivotal fight ensues. Yellow Robe's meditation on blood and racial identity centers on an angry, morally ambiguous man, and his struggle to go five minutes without exploding forms the core of his narrative.
Grandchildren puts a lot of weight on the lead actor, and in this case Craven comes close to carrying the production on his shoulders. In a raw, idiosyncratic performance, he moves with rangy grace and barely suppressed violence. Much of the time Craven wears an expression of astonishment over the degree of pain that he feels and sees. Craven's mercurial flashes of humor, ineffable sense of cool, and ability to convey a desperate need for finding goodness in himself and others make his performance both forceful and subtle.
Craig's developmentally disabled brother Elmo (freedome bradley, funny and uninhibited) is happy to see his big brother again, and generally places the blame for Craig's crankiness with outsiders ("Those white people did get to you!" he exclaims). Brother Brent (Jake Hart, square-jawed and solid, if at times a bit lacking in deeper dimensions) is not as pleased--he's been trying to deny his black roots, and has managed the trick of harboring a bit of a racist grudge against his family.
Some of the play's best sections take place in (invisible) cars, with Craig, Elmo, and Brent in one scene, and Craig and brother-in-law Stevie (M. Cochise Anderson) in another. Director Lou Bellamy's cast captures a loose, easygoing feel, and Yellow Robe's dialogue is often funny and biting ("One day you wake up to find there's something different about you," Craig says, "Or someone does it for you.").
Pithy lines like that, however, become scarcer as the play taunts the show-don't-tell authorities with increasing flagrancy and seems to enter a race to collect more words. One gets the sense that the curtain won't budge until every corner of the family's plight has been properly nailed down. This is particularly true during the Act 2 showdown, which is pulled off with heart but sags under a weight of verbiage and analysis. In the end you're left with a feeling that opportunities are missed amid a general drift (the aforementioned fight scene, for instance, was confusingly staged opening night). For all these flaws, Craven pulls the cast along with him to a resolution in which the prospect of an uneasy peace with life seems possible, and you might even leave the theater in high sprits. Given the heavy, and at times seemingly insoluble, anguish this work tackles, that's no small accomplishment.