I was not quite sure what to expect when I showed up at the Abingdon Theater recently for the Eagle Project’s inaugural production of Wood Bones by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.. I had attended an event introducing The Eagle Project, a new theater company dedicated to exploring the American identity through performing arts and their own Native heritage, earlier this year, and had been intrigued by the single scene I saw then.
The complete production of Wood Bones more than lived up to the promise of that scene, and was in fact one of the most beautiful and spiritual plays I have ever seen. The production was modest, but the simple yet inspired set by Jill Klinow Jaffe, with the implied “wood bones” of the house rising to meet the darkness outside, immediately created an atmosphere of mystery as we entered the theater, an atmosphere that was added to by the entrance of Albert Ybarra while the house lights were still up, performing a preparatory ceremony.
The play moves freely through time, telling a rich story of the inhabitants of an old house in South Dakota, who came from many backgrounds—white, African American, Indian American—and their relationships, honorable and dishonorable, loving and hate-filled. The house is haunted in many ways—by the stories and strong emotions of past residents, and by the elusive spirit whose nature we don’t understand fully until the end of the play. Mr. Yellow Robe captures these lives with depth and sympathy, and often plays against expectations, allowing growth and grace within a landscape that is dominated by racism and inequality.
He was blessed with actors who understood the work. Broadway veteran Dawn Jamieson gave a remarkable performance as 121, the enigmatic character of initially unknown origin who lives in the house. When she strained against walls that were not there, we felt her bewilderment and anguish. Albert Ybarra played the central character Leroy, who performed the ceremonies which had, for most of the play, a puzzling effect on 121—alternately painful and evocative. Until the end, the audience, although drawn to him and his apparent benevolence, is unsure of his motive, and his reveal at the end is genuinely surprising and emotionally satisfying.
Three sets of characters, from three distinct time periods in the last 70 years, offer different versions of betrayal. A young Korean War veteran and his young wife, portrayed very touchingly and with tremendous dignity by Freedome Bradley and Veracity Butcher, try to move into the house, and meet racist obstruction. Sam (played by Robert Baumgardner with creepiness and self-loathing—to great effect), after receiving support from the Reservation Association to move into the house, abuses his stepdaughter, a role so well performed by Eden Sanaa Duncan-Smith that the tension over her fate becomes one of the strongest threads of the play. As his wife, Joleen Wilkinson gives a portrait of co-dependence that makes you want to alternately shake her and rescue her. And a contractor, played with villainous delight by David Fierro, buys the house five years later by manipulating a loan from the same Association, managing to cheat his cousin and co-worker Calvin, (whose alternating disapproval and cynical exploitation are ably captured by Ryan Victor Pierce) while stripping the house of everything valuable that made it beautiful and unique, with the intention, not of living in it, but of renting it cheaply as slum housing.
I won’t say more about the intertwining of their stories, and the surprises of the endings, in the hope that someday a wider audience will see the play and share the same surprises. The piece, in spite of characters who are frustrated by the racism and exploitation that confines them, moves quickly and manages to be a great deal of fun, due at least in part to the fluid and empathetic direction of Bob Jaffe. It’s a play that could have indulged in stereotypes, but did the exact opposite; nothing is quite what you expect, not even the “haunted house.” Although Mr. Yellow Bones plays even more freely with chronology, the play has some of the quality of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal—it is only at the end that you come to understand the beginning (or, perhaps, only at the beginning that you can come to understand the end.)