His life was painted in broad, muscular strokes that challenged the imagination. George Bonga searched through muck and mosquitoes for the source of the Mississippi River when he was 18. He portaged canoes with 700 pounds of beaver pelts on his back. He tracked a suspected killer for six days through the northern Minnesota winter of 1837. He spoke French, English and Ojibwe, negotiated treaties and established a lodge on Leech Lake.
Bonga's story is made for the cinema in an age where Leo DiCaprio will likely win an Oscar for nestling in the carcass of a horse. Putting Bonga into live theater — where we don't get the camera's intimacy or the expanse of nature — is tougher business.
Playwright Carlyle Brown trades the high drama of literal biography for a quieter inquiry into Bonga's sense of identity in "George Bonga: Black Voyageur," which had its premiere Saturday at History Theatre in St. Paul.
"Who are you, Bonga?" is asked often as actor James A. Williams portrays the son of a black father and Ojibwe mother.
The native tribes, with whom he did business as a trapper and trader, considered him a white man because he came from the world of American styles and customs. White society certainly accepted him, but he clearly was not one of them. Williams depicts Bonga as a man of intellect and respect, not the gruff, crude stereotype of a wild man. He wonders, though, where he fits in.
The main action in a static play — which for long stretches consists of two people talking to each other — is Bonga's 1837 pursuit of Che-Ga-Wa-Skung (Jake Waid), an Ojibwe man accused of murder. The two have a scratchy relationship, almost friendly, as Che-Ga-Wa-Skung questions why Bonga is serving the white man by bringing the Indian to face a law system that has different rights for different races. Elsewhere, Bonga's Ojibwe wife, Ashwinn (Marisa Carr), provides a sympathetic ear for her husband's ruminations.
Director Marion McClinton allows Brown's dialogue to unfold without a lot of fuss. Bonga and Che-Ga-Wa-Skung both lament the advent of loggers who will damage a natural world of balance. They agree on the vagaries of laws that depend on ethnicity. Bonga is more willing to accept that state of affairs; Che-Ga-Wa-Skung questions those assumptions.
We also get to see the sharp detective mind of a trapper and his prey as both men navigate the wilderness with evident wits. In other scenes, Bonga works through the obstacle course of demanding justice from corrupt white officials — in conversation with a sympathetic white businessman (Eric Knutson).
Brown writes in elevated tones that occasionally ring like poetry but also can land with a stilted awkwardness. Dean Holzman's rudimentary set design and McClinton's straightforward staging reinforce the idea that "George Bonga" is not going to electrify an audience with heroic depictions of a man struggling against nature.
Quite the opposite, in fact. A show about this guy who carved his livelihood from the physical world finds its greatest expression through intellectual arguments. Brown demands a lot of our patience with chunky pieces of conversation around a campfire.
What we see is a tale with modern sensibility, of questions about how oddly important it has become to label people. Bonga is presented as a complex man who resists the vocabulary of identity and who loves the forest, where a man can simply be himself.