REVIEW of The Buffalo Hero of World War I–The Wayne Miner Story, at the American Theater of Actors by ROBERT LIEBOWITZ
There is much to applaud, and just as much to pull one’s hair out in frustration, in a decidedly mixed production by The Crystal Image Performing Arts Company of Kenthedo Robinson’s sparkling new play “The Buffalo Hero of World War I–The Wayne Miner Story, at the American Theater of Actors.”
The play depicts the life and death of Private Wayne Miner, a black soldier in the famed Buffalo Soldier 92nd Division. Fighting not only the Germans on the battlefield as well as profound racism at home in the United States, not only did he perform his duties above and beyond the call, but is also documented as being the last soldier of the war to be killed, approximately three hours before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
The play is the thing, someone once wrote long ago, and there is no doubt–none–that it is the play that carries the day….at least a good part of the way. Kenthedo Robinson, a teacher and adjunct professor of theater and creative writing, has spent the last four years researching this most noble subject, and this research, combined with a wonderful ear and eye for dialogue and dramatic action, is the flag-bearer of the production, and a sight to hear and see. His dialogue is crisp, vibrant, brutally honest, and dramatic–Mr. Robinson has a wonderful sense of pace, timing, and structure, and is more than proficient of all the technical elements that go into the makings of a well-made play.
As the black soldiers struggle to maintain their dignity, sanity, discipline, and sense of duty and fair play, Mr. Robinson keenly and astutely probes the concerns of these black Americans as they enter ‘the war to end all wars’. Three soldiers–Franklin Seymoure (wonderfully portrayed, in a Tony-worthy performance by Corey Grant), and Rufus Rucker (ably played by Maurice McPherson), in addition to the star-crossed Mr. Miner (given the other two a run for their money by Darrell Wyatt) represent several different kind of black men. From the poorly-educated, to the very educated, to the one in the middle, this dynamic creates all sorts of dramatic conflict, especially when parried against the brutish Commander Clark, a white colonel still hell-bent on fighting the Civil War.
Unfortunately, we must now turn to the hair-pulling portion of the afternoon; the direction was sub-standard, and compromised the telling of this very worthy play. Proper pace, space, pulse, motivations, were all lacking; even the between-scene changes were spotty and inefficient. In addition, there were historically-inaccurate elements in the production where you couldn’t control the rolling of your eyes even if you wanted to. In the very first scene, a nurse (Justine Robinson) is offering on her cart to soldiers departing to training camp three things–a chain of an angel, an offer of letter-writing, and an American flag–a flag adorned with fifty states. Any casual student of American History knows that there were 48 states in America during the time of World War I (and World War II and Korea, for that matter), not the 50 states that those flags implied. Rather than display the incorrect flags, the better choice was to not display them at all.
In addition, some of the actors need to learn that there are many tools in the actor’s toolbox, not just one. When one does their acting only with their neck, or another one does all their acting with their hands–and excluding by residue or design the other tools–then you know you are in for a long afternoon.
Kudos to Kenthedo Robinson, who has written a very good play about a very timely subject. Now, all he needs to do is carve away a bit at the fat and the stuff that doesn’t quite belong, and he will have a masterpiece on his hands in no time at all.