through June 26, Kate Goldman Theatre, Des Moines Playhouse, $25
Three minutes to curtain on June 19, 2022, the Kate Goldman Theatre at the Des Moines Playhouse was mostly full. The blackbox was decked in a sparse yet effective smattering of western themed set pieces and there was an excited hum emanating from the audience about what was to come.
Buffalo Women, which was produced by Pyramid Theatre Company in collaboration with the Des Moines Playhouse, is a self-described “work in progress” by Midwestern playwright Beaufield Berry. Staged as a reading with some choreographed and blocked elements, the story centers around Bethula, who has been recently freed from slavery and is searching for her daughter. Throughout the show, she meets four other women who are navigating their own challenges while enslaved people still residing in confederacy-controlled states finally gain their freedom over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Of course, the weight of Buffalo Women opening on Juneteenth was not lost on most. And those unaware of the significance were clued in when Pyramid Theatre Company Artist Director Tiffany Johnson announced, “To all the Black people in the room, Happy Juneteenth!” as she introduced the show. The audience erupted into joyful applause and the show began.
While audience members were prepped to expect a workshop style show, the performances that followed were nothing less than main stage worthy. Notably, Rebecca Davis dropped jaws with her powerful vocals and compelling line delivery as Bethula. Buffalo Women is her Playhouse debut.
The play, subtitled “A Black Cowgirl Musical Dramedy,” is as funny as it is heart-wrenching. The comedic moments are spread pretty evenly throughout the tight-knit cast, but Des Moines Playhouse veteran Alexandra Gray won hearts with her larger than life portrayal of Stagecoach Mary as did managing director of Pyramid Theatre Company, Alexis Davis, with her portrayal of Zadie.
The fantastic performances did not stop at the actors. Lit by clip-on music stand lights, Music Director Courageous Fire accompanied the powerhouse vocal performances on piano as she conducted the rest of the band. And choreographer Toné Cheré received well-deserved acknowledgement after the show for her contribution, specifically for the dance during “Stagecoach,” where actors formed a train with their bodies as Gray belted from a raised platform.
It’s always a privilege to watch a show where teamwork and collaboration are at the forefront. By nature of Buffalo Women still being under revision, there was an obvious shared goal to explore the way this play fits best onstage. No ego here, just a cast of dedicated people exploring how this story should be told.
Berry, during a talkback after the performance, praised that spirit of collaboration among the actors. “You don’t want to be the smartest person in the room,” she said, speaking of the workshopping process and what the performers and directors brought to the piece.
During the talkback, Berry and the cast also spoke to the historical significance of the characters featured in the play. Cathay Williams, Stagecoach Mary, and Bridget “Biddy” Mason are all real women that white history largely forgot. So Berry “gave them a life onstage.”
Overall, Buffalo Women is a compelling and educational retelling of American history. It shies away from the sanitization of unsavory truths, but simultaneously embraces the resilience and joyous moments that happen in spite of them. If you’re looking for a well-oiled machine of a performance, this one isn’t for you. But it’s got a hell of a lot of heart and you might just be getting in on the ground floor of something spectacular if you catch this show in this early iteration.
Buffalo Women runs from June 19-26 at the Des Moines Playhouse. Tickets are $25. Talkbacks are planned following the performances on June 24, 25 and 26.
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