Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Heritage Gardens, 900 E. Broadway, Hopewell, VA 23860, August 7 & 8; Battersea Park, 1289 Upper Appomattox St., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 14 & 15; Children’s Home (Chesterfield), 6900 Hickory Rd., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 21 & 22.
Performances: August 7-22, Saturdays & Sundays, at 4:00 PM. All performances outdoors; bring your own chair. Tickets: $10 in advance only.
As a young adult in Brooklyn, I used to listen to a black DJ who frequently used the term “edutainment.”[i] Whatever the source, that seems to be just the right word to describe Margarette Joyner’s production of BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS. A perfect vehicle for children, most of those in attendance at Battersea Park[ii] in Petersburg on Sunday afternoon were adults. Tellingly, we enjoyed ourselves as much as the little one who sat front and center.
BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS follows much the same formula as Joyner’s What They Did For Us: Black Women Who Paved the Way, presented at Richmond Triangle Players Robert B. Moss Theatre in February and March of this year. But after I fought and won a battle with the mosquitos and came to a livable compromise with the heat and humidity, I found this wild west historical romp to be one of Joyner’s most enjoyable productions to date. The formula is roughly a series of monologues, performed by a lively cast, many of whom have experience as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. In this casual outdoor setting, the wild west theme, with the actors walking around in cowboy boots with six-shooters strapped to their thighs while greeting the audience by tipping their hats and drawling “howdy, ma’am,” was just what was needed to draw the audience into this rowdy tale.
First up was Clara Brown. Born into slavery right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Clara Brown became Colorado’s first black settler and a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist. Then there was Willie Kennard, a sharp-shooting cowboy and arms instructor for the military who became a town marshal in Yankee Hills, Colorado, where he defeated the town bully. Moving on to more familiar names, we also heard from Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, who recorded many of his exploits in an autobiography, and Mary Fields, perhaps better known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman driver for the US Postal Service, as well as Bill Pickett, the cowboy and rodeo superstar credited with inventing the rodeo event known as “bull dogging.” This dangerous feat involves the cowboy dropping from his horse onto a steer then wrestling said steer to the ground by its horns. According to legend, Pickett added the sensational flourish of biting the bull’s lip after twisting his head. (Yes, it sounds cruel and gruesome, but this is a theater review, and I am simply reporting historical facts, so no comments, please.)
All these stories were told with great flourishes, lots of “oohs” and “aahhs” and exaggerated body language. The actors performed on and around the front porch of the historic Battersea estate, with the audience seated on folding chairs (“new-fangled contraptions”) or blankets on the grassy lawn. Much as I dislike mosquitos, this setting greatly enhanced the experience for me. The only thing that might possibly have made it better would have been seeing and smelling a plume of smoke rising from the kitchen and someone handing me a plate of BBQ, baked beans, and cornbread with a mason jar of sarsaparilla (root beer would suffice).
Kudos to the versatile and enthusiastic cast. (I haven’t matched names with roles, as there was no printed program, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it is an ensemble, so equal kudos to all. Well, okay, a little extra to Dorothy Dee-D Miller for her swagger – and her beard, but don’t tell the others) As of this writing, there are two more opportunities remaining to see BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS or this run. I hope it becomes a regular part of the Heritage Ensemble’s rotating repertoire. Yeehaw, ya’ll. Now git (out there and see the show).
BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS
Written & Directed by Margarette Joyner
Produced by the Black Seed Grant
CAST (in alphabetical order):
Dorothy Dee-D Miller
Shalandis Wheeler Smith
Michelle M. Washington
[i] The term has been credited to The Walt Disney Company, but some sources trace it back to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac).
[ii] Built in 1768 as the country estate of John Banister, Petersburg’s first mayor, Battersea is a Virginia Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is “one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in America.” batterseafound.org