Playwright Carlyle Brown is getting over his denial about being a Minnesotan.
A voracious student of history, the native New Yorker has started to indulge his curiosity after three decades in his adopted state. When a friend told him about George Bonga, he found a character fascinating enough for a new play.
“George Bonga: Black Voyageur” has its world premiere Saturday at History Theatre in St. Paul, with James A. Williams in the title role.
Early Minnesota, said Brown, was a multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual world and Bonga was at its center.
“We talk about Paul Bunyan, well, this guy was that mythic,” Brown said. “He was like Minnesota’s Daniel Boone.”
Born to an African-American father and an Ojibwe mother, Bonga actually was considered a white man by the American Indians — he had a house and dressed in European styles. Yet, he was accepted because he married an Anishinaabe woman and made his living as a fur trader.
“There are a lot of contemporary plays about identity,” Brown said. “When someone asks you to choose an identity, I always ask, ‘Why do I have to choose?’ ”
For decades before statehood (1858), Minnesota’s economy was driven by its natural resources and fur was the first industry to capitalize the state, bringing in hard currency in exchange for beaver pelts that were shipped to Montreal and on to New York and Europe. Bonga worked for the American Fur Co., John Jacob Astor’s outfit.
Brown likens the voyageurs to “the truck drivers” of their era, shipping cargo along the waterways.
Bonga was born in Duluth in 1802. His family had enough money to send him to school in Montreal and he was fluent in French, English and Ojibwe. Like nearly all fur traders, he married an American Indian woman, which gave the trader status in native territories, where alliances and credibility mattered.
His interpreting skills were highly regarded, as was his position among the tribes. He was chosen for the Lewis Cass expedition to find the headwaters of the Mississippi River and he knew many prominent territorial politicians. His name is on treaties that he helped to negotiate and he advocated honestly for Indian positions.
There are many stories about Bonga, the most repeated of which is his pursuit in the winter of 1837 of an Ojibwe man accused of murder. Bonga tracked the man for six days through the frigid forests and brought him to Fort Snelling for trial.
Bonga got into hot water for his pursuit of the man, Che-ga-wa-skung (portrayed in the History Theatre show by Jake Waid). “It raised questions in the community of whether he was one of us or a traitor,” Brown said.
As a playwright, Brown recognized the importance of this episode in Bonga’s life but it meant that a big piece of the play would be “about two guys walking around in the woods.”
He laughed and said that as he was writing, he comforted himself because “I trusted Marion [McClinton, the play’s director] to make it work.”
A familiar character
While Brown had to get up to speed on Bonga, this is McClinton’s third go-around with the North Woods legend.
He wrote “Seasons of Bonga,” a play for the Playwrights Center’s Storyteller program, many years ago. Then he wrote “Sacred Heart of the Warrior Bonga” for the History Theatre’s predecessor.
Despite that base of experience, McClinton said he always defers to Brown on historical matters.
“Never get into a history argument with Carlyle Brown,” McClinton said. “He has this deep historic knowledge and he gives it an artistic vision as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
McClinton said that while he is directing a show, he takes the script home and reads it every night. “It keeps me and the text in a constant relationship,” he said.
Brown says McClinton “sees things I don’t see. Marion has taken a world that is expansive in terms of space and creates these illusions of time.”
Williams also is familiar with the character he will portray. He toured the state in “Seasons of Bonga” with McClinton, traveling “from Hallock, where you can see Canada, to Elmore, which is on Iowa’s doorstep.”
Williams said it’s a blast to play Bonga because the man was such a legend. As an actor, though, he relies on the playwright.
“I go where the words take me,” he said. “You have to find the humanity, and what you usually find is that what makes a character larger than life is how an everyday person reacts in extraordinary circumstances. You find a depth you didn’t know existed.”
Bonga did well in the fur trade until the industry collapsed in the 1840s. The beaver had been trapped to near-extinction and demand declined. Lumber interests then invaded northern Minnesota. Bonga and his wife had four children and operated a lodge on Leech Lake until he died in the 1870s. Brown said “there a lot of Bongas around [northern Minnesota] today.”
When he and McClinton did a staged reading of the work two years ago, Brown said, audiences seemed to see the story as a shared history — a part of their heritage.
He sees it that way, too. “This is my home.”