‘Buffalo Women’ offers a new conversation on Black female camaraderie, set against a Juneteenth backdrop

Buffalo Women by Beaufield Berry, courtesy of The Des Moines Playhouse Facebook page
‘Buffalo Women’ by Beaufield Berry, courtesy of The Des Moines Playhouse Facebook page

Buffalo Women, which opens this Sunday, Juneteenth, is a new play by Omaha-based playwright Beaufield Berry. Subtitled “A Black Cowgirl Musical Dramedy,” the play tells the story of how five Black women, including interpretations of historical figures, find solidarity with one another and use the strength of sisterhood to overcome adversities of motherhood, racism, new-found freedom and womanhood in 1865.

This workshop performance, only the second presentation of Berry’s script, is a co-production between Pyramid Theatre Company & the Des Moines Playhouse. It’s co-directed by Des Moines Playhouse artistic director Katy Merriman and Pyramid Theater Company director Tiffany Johnson, who regularly seeks out new productions to bring to Des Moines.

One of Johnson’s goals when looking for new work is to find artists in this region that don’t have the same visibility as they would in bigger cities. Johnson stumbled upon Berry after encountering her earlier play In the Upper Room

Once learning that play was going to have a world premiere in Denver, co-directors Merriman and Johnson moved on to a Buffalo Women, also by Berry, which was still being developed. The performances here in Des Moines are in preparation for larger venues. The two directors had the chance to modify the piece and advise the playwright on decisions.

Buffalo Women is set on June 19, 1865, which was pertinent in reminding people that these women are free and helping audiences break free of the internal slavery residing in our minds. Berry got the idea for the play from Tricia Martineau Wagner’s 2007 book African American Women of the Old West.

‘Buffalo Women’ costumes for Bethula, Cathay Williams, Biddy, Zadie and Stagecoach Mary (Kessehu Usert-Wonten, designer). — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The show follows Bethula, a fictional woman, who is searching for her daughter, who was taken and sold prior to emancipation. During her journey, she meets other women who join her along the way. She eventually becomes the glue that connects the women together.

“History has happened,” Johnson said, “and we find that in the characters that are there historically. And history is being made. We find that in the characters that have never lived before this production.”

“They weren’t only coming together as Black women,” Johnson continued. “They were coming together as mothers. Mothers that understood what it felt like inside to have something taken from them that they birthed. Mothers that understood that they needed to feed babies that weren’t theirs and the outcome of that is that their own babies weren’t eating well and were malnourished and didn’t have enough food. They knew what that felt like.”

Merriman says she was especially intrigued by the play’s subtitle. “I love the way that Beaufield has written it in that it’s informative and it deals with real and traumatic things in history, and then in a Black women’s history — especially the five in this show — but it’s also so funny and a lot of the speech is pretty contemporary,” she said. “It’s about something historical that still effects Black women today and it’s relatable just cause of the language.”

Johnson agrees. “Black women were going through a lot during that period of time there were still moments that they found joy and moments that they found laughter or solidarity or things of that nature and we want to try to exemplify the things that were happening way back in the 1800s are still things that we can find to be great support structures for Black women in the world today.”

“I think that one of the things that jumped out to us is that we were going to be doing our co-pro [co-production] in the month of June, when Juneteenth was going to be celebrated — and this play actually takes place the day June 19th, 1865, where one of the women has discovered that she is free,” Johnson said of the two companies’ decision to tell this story. “We thought, what would be a better time to tell a story like this than at a period of time that we are celebrating the acknowledgement of the fact that we were free and the emancipation of slavery and not just in a way that was heavy, but in a way that was kind of true to form?”

Johnson and Merriman were excited about directing this new show because it gave them a sort of adrenaline rush to be taking a risk with a new production.

“We get comfortable with classical work because we know what to expect from it. But when you’re working on something that is new and that has never hit an audience before, it’s a risk that is involved with that,” Johnson said.

“We’re risk takers,” Johnson said, as the two shared smiles and a laugh. “You got to choose edgier work. You got to be able to speak to younger audiences and say things that are relevant to them.”

“We like to have fun together, enjoy finding new work and how we could not only keep the love of performing arts and theater alive as we start to try to pass down into a younger demographic to keep it alive and vibrant and also to show the relevance to how it can speak. And art tends to continue to speak over and over and over again to the people that the art is living with,” Johnson said.

During one of the initial production meetings, both directors spoke with Berry and her agent via Zoom. What stuck out to Merriman about that meeting is that each one of them had children, which made an empowering impression on her.

“It was like, Beaufield — she’s got kids crawling all over her. I had a toddler all over me. Her agent was there and had kids with her. And you’ve got kids [gesturing towards Johnson]. It was just like this Zoom room of women and their children and just running the freaking world! I was like, ‘I want to work with all of these people’,” Merriman cheerfully recalled.

Throughout the play, Berry incorporates a lot of comedy in the language of the characters.

“I think that was her original vision — to lighten the load of heavy material by incorporating humor,” Johnson said. “It’s like an emotional break in a play where you can feel the heaviness of what’s going on or you can experience the heaviness of the words that are being said. But you can also take a break from that and have the relief of humor.”

Merriman recognizes the similarities with reality. “You can’t be that traumatized and that miserable constantly. There has to be some break. There’s even moments in the play where someone’s sitting in the middle of the forest feeling peaceful and laughing. Then in the next moment they’re crying. And then the next they’re laughing again. It’s just really real and raw too.”

“Like the saying, you got to laugh to keep from crying,” Johnson laughed.

Buffalo Women is the second of three collaborations planned between Pyramid and the Playhouse. (The first was A Love Offering by Jonathan Norton.) The two are continuing to push towards diversifying their audiences, telling stories that don’t center whiteness, moving away from Black characters serving as accessories to white characters and being able to share the load of telling a story to come to a commonality.

“Our love of theater and performing arts is something that we don’t want to see go away, so we want to continue to inspire people. That’s always been a goal — getting younger, and diversifying audiences getting into theater, and revitalizing something that is incredibly helpful for the human aspect of life in general,” Johnson said.

“Sharing stories, sharing space for sure two huge things and broadening our audiences. We want to have all kinds of people walking into these doors, and we want to be sending audiences downtown to see a Pyramid show,” Merriman said.

Kate Golden Children’s Theater under construction for ‘Buffalo Women.’ — Courtney Guein/Little Village

She also explains feelings of not wanting a demographic of people only going to shows that display their demographic of people. “We want it to never be a thing like ‘I’m a Black person, I’m going to go see a show about Black people’ or ‘I’m a white person, I’m going to see a show about a white person.’ It’s not that at all and theater is never meant to be that,” Merriman said.

Choosing Berry’s play this time around, Johnson and Merriman were easily able to recognize the differences in their connection to the play. “We have to understand and honor that we are coming from two very different cultural perspectives. We’re coming from two very different ways of doing things. We can’t deny that,” Johnson pointed out.

With Buffalo Women, Merriman made things look good while Johnson made sure the show dove into the dialogue.

Johnson describes herself as a good traumatic director and as being capable of digging into emotions with dialogue, while Merriman is very good with staging and can properly place things to stage a show well.

Even with that being true, Johnson adds that “It is really hard for Katy to inform a Black story.”

Merriman agrees, “That’s not my talk to have.” But the two are able to accurately predict when to step in and when to step back.

“I think so far, the shows that we do are definitely needed in Des Moines because it’s a story or a message that we want more people in our city to hear — to feel OK about having a response or a reaction,” Merriman said.

In their previous collaboration, A Love Offering, the question was raised, “How do you care for the people in your life as they age?”

“This a totally different kind of story,” Merriman said, “but it’s still stuff that I don’t know we’re always talking about in some of the other kinds of plays that are being done in town.”

Johnson adds, “I do believe that legislatively the way that we’re being restricted with education in this region, it’s become more and more important for us to share history through art. And there’ll be a lot of people who didn’t know Biddy Mason, or Stagecoach Mary, or Cathay Williams — but these women were historical women”.

“To see that all of history wasn’t rooted in slavery — there was a period in between there when people were taking things back for themselves — and to empower our communities, and to do that today, I think is really, really important. And not taking back things in a separatist way but taking ownership in a way that allows you to still be in the same space and time with other people from other cultures and not feel like you have to denounce your own,” Johnson said.

Merriman is hoping to sell a lot of tickets to Buffalo Women to “see this thing come to life.” She can’t wait for the playwright to see her script read by these great performers. Berry will be participating in talkbacks following the June 24, 25 and 26 shows.

“I feel like we have helped improved the work and get it ready for the next step, and that was our goal,” Merriman said.

Johnson agrees. “I think as we find the new normal that we all have to find in this world at this time, I think this is a good, exemplary thing that has occurred. I feel really good about the fact that we were able to do that.”

Buffalo Women runs six performances at Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre, opening on Juneteenth and continuing Wednesday, June 22-Sunday, June 26. The show features music and additional lyrics by J. Isaiah Smith and choreography by Toné Cheré. Courageous Fire is musical director. Tickets are $25.