Marcus Gardley’s the road weeps, the well runs dry
is a remarkable play about a free community of African-Americans, Seminole Indians, and mixed-race men and women living in an Indian territory in what is now Wewoka, Okla., in the 19th century.
The play, which is currently appearing in a production by the USF School of Theatre and Dance, is epic in its ambitions, dazzling in its accomplishments, and entirely unlike anything else in American drama that this critic can remember.
Poetic and savage both, the road weeps addresses such themes as intergenerational combat, the clash of Native American religion with Christianity, magic, vengeance, and the forced migration of a population. In the fine USF production, masterfully directed by Fanni Green, all the play’s strengths — and a few of its flaws — are boldly displayed. What we learn by play’s end is that Gardley’s vision is as sweeping as Tony Kushner’s or August Wilson’s, and that his dialogue is so packed with energy, you don’t dare miss a syllable. That a writer of this potency is finding success in the American theater — his other plays have been presented from Lincoln Center to Berkeley Rep — is some of the most hopeful news I’ve heard in years.
There are so many plotlines at work in Gardley’s play (which clocks in at just under three hours) that no brief synopsis can do justice to the full experience. Still, there is a central event: the murder of a young man named Goodbird by a freedman known as Number Two, and the effects of this killing on the citizens of the town in which they both live. As we come to learn, Number Two and Goodbird’s father Trowbridge have been rivals since adolescence, and Trowbridge’s rise to sheriff came at Number Two’s expense. Other stories include the efforts of M. Gene, a Christian woman, to counter the religion of her Native American grandfather, and the decision by the U.S. government to move the town’s citizens off the land they were guaranteed in a treaty. There’s humor in the script — in M. Gene’s relationship to her pastor husband Fat Rev., whom she doesn’t at all respect — and there’s wizardry and tragedy.
Throughout we’re subject to the fascination of seeing black and Native American characters living freely in 1850 and then 1866. Gardley is not just a powerful writer; he’s also a redeemer of lost U.S. history.
In a mostly top-notch cast of a dozen-and-a-half, a few actors stand out. First, there’s Don Laurin, who plays Number Two as a dangerous megalomaniac, one who only gets more arrogant as he achieves greater power. As young murder victim Goodbird — and also as Goodbird’s son Wonderful — Paul Pullen is ingratiating, and as the ridiculous Fat Rev., BerChaun Clark is a welcome comic figure.
Perri Gaffney is convincing as Trowbridge’s wife, the witch Half George, and Uwezo Sudan is just about impeccable as the medicine man Horse Power. G. B. Stephens’ impressive set is of a rocklike formation rising in steps from the stage and flanked by structures representing the makeshift homes of Number Two and Half George. Marilyn Gaspardo Bertch’s many costumes vividly communicate a population at the meeting place of several different traditions, as does Matt Cowley’s sound design. I should add that music plays an important role in the road weeps, occasionally gracing us with moments of haunting beauty.
As for the flaws? The play’s too long, I think, and could be just as — or more — effective at a half-hour shorter. Also, the flashbacks and flashforwards are hard to follow, and so (sometimes) are the identities of the actors playing multiple roles. But these are mostly quibbles; for the most part, this drama is stunningly original and often beautiful. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from Marcus Gardley.