History Theatre looks at a tracker, a trial and a question of racial identity

Marion McClinton and Carlyle Brown
Director Marion McClinton and playwright Carlyle Brown before a rehearsal at the History Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Three old and very talented friends are about to present the story of one of early Minnesota's great characters. This weekend the History Theatre in St. Paul opens its new play, "George Bonga: Black Voyageur."

It examines the very different identity politics of Minnesota almost 200 years ago.

A couple of days ago, as people arriving for rehearsal stamped the snowstorm off their feet, actor James A. Williams saw it as useful for the play.

"So this is what it looked like, tracking in the snow," he said.

Williams plays George Bonga in a story that involves a lot of tracking in the snow. Director Marion McClinton said that Bonga was a mythic figure, even when he was alive back in the 1830s.

"He was possibly the best tracker, the best trapper, and made some money in the voyageur business," said McClinton.

But Bonga also stood out for another reason. He was the grandson of slaves. His mother was Ojibwe. And he towered over most people.

James A. Williams as George Bonga
Actor James A. Williams portrays George Bonga in a new production at the History Theater in St. Paul, "George Bonga: Black Voyageur."
Craig VanDerSchaegen | History Theater

"He was the quintessential notion of difference," said playwright Carlyle Brown.

"He was big, and black, but half Indian," he said. "Considered a black white man by the Indians, a white man by the whites, in a world that is not like we would imagine today."

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. Brown said it made perfect sense back then.

"To Native Americans he was white because, culturally, he lived like a white man," he said.

Then in 1837 George Bonga took on a job that was to cement his name in state history. He was sent to track and capture an Ojibwe warrior named Che-ga-wa-skung, accused of murdering a white man. The six-day chase occurred in the depth of winter.

Bonga returned with the fugitive, and Brown said it resulted in a historic event.

"The first criminal trial in the territory," he said. "And the trial itself had a pretty crazy outcome."

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

"Damn you, Che-ga-wa-skung! Damn you!" roars Williams as Bonga in the play. "I always thought you would come here one day and extract 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."

"I guess it's the story of a man struggling to embrace all of his identities, and who in some ways is always being defined by other people," said Brown. "I think that's the story, right, Marion? Something like that?" He laughed.

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 said Williams and Brown are among the best in the country, and he loves the way Brown's multi-layered scripts challenge him.

"I like the way he thinks, the way he sees the world, what he does with his plays," McClinton said. "The only other writer I have felt that with is August Wilson."

Brown praised McClinton's skill at working with actors to really understand a script and the patterns in its words.

"In the way the words are aligned, their duration and their length and the rhythm," he said. "There's as much meaning in those things as in the words themselves and what the words mean."

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

"So when Carlyle talked to me about the play, and he said it's about George Bonga, I laughed," he said. "And then I thought, 'Well, one more go-around with George. One more go-around.'"

But McClinton and Brown both believe this show will be something special.