Stage Door Review

I See the Crimson Wave

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

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written and directed by Roy Lewis

Here for Now Theatre Company, The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

August 1- September 5, 2020

“Cowboy Haiku”

The Here For Now Open-Air Theatre Festival, so successful it’s now been extended by a week, continues at The Bruce Hotel with a new play written and performed by Stratford Festival veteran Roy Lewis. Lewis tells the fascinating story of the real-life Black cowboy Nat Love (1854-1921) in a style of theatre I have never encountered before. Lewis has told Love’s story in the form of a (fictional) anthology of   Love’s poetry. The nonfictional tale is thus related in a series of poems written by Lewis in the style of cowboy poetry and arranged by Lewis as “editor” to give us glimpses into the life and thought of his remarkable subject.

Lewis tells us that in the 19th century four out of every ten cowboys were Black. This fact, supported by historians, should make us outraged that the Black cowboy has been almost totally erased from television and movies. In his 1974 movie Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks includes a Black sheriff as if it were an hilarious joke. In his 2012 movie Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino portrays the Black cowboy as an almost cartoonish agent of revenge. Where is the portrayal of the Black cowboy as simply a part of the everyday life of the Old West? The answer is that Hollywood remained perhaps wilfully ignorant of the historical diversity of cowboys long after figures like Nat Love had become known.

Fortunately, Lewis has come across the figure of Nat Love, the most famous of all Black cowboys, due in no small part to Love’s having written up his incredible life story in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick" (1907). Love was born a slave on a plantation in Tennessee – his father the slave foreman, is mother the kitchen manager. Most important for Lewis’s play, Love was taught to read and write by his father even though literacy was illegal among slaves. After the end of the Civil War, Love, who had a knack with horses, left Tennessee for Kansas, where he found work as a cowboy and cattle driver.

During cattle drives he met some of the legends of the Old West like Billy the Kid. His rodeo skills were such that Love earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick” after the hero of a dime novel series. When Love decided to marry and settle down in 1889, he became a Pullman porter and wrote of the patriotism that travel inspired: “See America, then let your chest swell with pride that you are an American” is the heading of Chapter XX of his biography.

Lewis’s conceit is that Love not only became literate but became a poet. Lewis claims that an unpublished manuscript of Love’s poems has recently been found in a trunk in Ontario and that he has been appointed to be the collection’s editor. Cowboy poetry is well-know branch of popular poetry, but Lewis portrays Love as being inspired to write poetry by coming across a translation of the famous “old pond” haiku by Matsuo Bashō (1644-94): 「古池や 飛び込む 水の音」 (“Old pond / Frog leaps / Sound of water”). Lewis says that what attracted Love to haiku was its simplicity and its ability to capture a moment in time.*

The first of Love’s fictitious poems that Lewis relates to us are his rules for being a cowboy that Love happens to have written as haiku. Lewis has arranged Love’s poems so that they first reflect Love’s joy at his freedom of being a cowboy before they turn to the past to depict his birth into slavery. After giving Love a reflection on the injustice he and his ancestors suffered in the title poem, “I See the Crimson Wave”, Lewis has Love’s poems focus on miscellaneous musings on cowboy life – cattle herding, bar room tensions, meeting Billy the Kid and listing all the kinds of people not cut out to be cowboys.

Lewis closes with Love’s reflections on being a Pullman “palace car” porter that show a man proud of his job and thrilled with seeing America coast to coast and amused by the wide range of people he meets. In his autobiography, Love never expressed feeling downtrodden in his job as a porter and Lewis’s presentation of Love’s poems similarly convey Love’s positivity.

In constructing his play as an anthology of poems supposedly written by Love, Lewis likely begins with a series of haiku because the nature of haiku embodies his approach to his subject. There have been previous plays about Nat Love, like I, Nat Love (1994) by Rochel Garner Coleman, that tell Love’s story as a straightforward chronological narrative. Lewis’s approach is more like that of haiku that present through momentary aperçus of nature epiphanies about the realities of existence.

In the same way, Lewis’s poems, written in the mode of cowboy poetry, present insights that Love might have had about the unusual course of his life. Each poem in Lewis’s collection shows a facet of Love’s thinking or perception. All the facets together leave us with a portrait of of a proud man with a sly sense of humour, filled with the joy of freedom and of being alive, a joy he carries with him no matter whether he is herding cattle or herding passenger on a train.

Lewis has so mastered the art of cowboy poetry and so fully imagined himself into the persona of Nat Love that anyone unfamiliar with Love could easily believe that Love actually wrote the poems Lewis reads. The poem “I See the Crimson Wave” is so moving and Love’s portraits of failed cowboys is so amusing that it is difficult to think otherwise. This is because Lewis has conquered all the forms he uses – whether haiku, ballad, sonnet, limerick or Gilbertian patter song – and infused them colloquial 19th-century language and with vivid imagery of the Old West. The only slip I noticed was the use of “mantra”, a word that would not have had a non-religious meaning until the mid-20th century.

Lewis reads his poems in his deep, resonant voice that caresses the meaning of every word. He is expert at judging the placement and length of pauses which are so crucial in reciting haiku. He carefully distinguishes his narrator’s voice from Love’s voice in the poems and we even have the pleasure of hearing him sing, a pleasure his work at the Stratford Festival has too long denied us.

Lewis does not present the show off book, but that does not really count as a flaw since Lewis’s references to the text before him comes across as an editor’s making sure he has Love’s words down exactly right. Clearly, Lewis would like us to understand Love’s life purely from the poetry that Lewis has written. Nevertheless, it would help give the evening greater shape if Lewis allowed himself to intervene more often as narrator and set up the time, place and circumstances of more of the poems.

Lewis’s approach to his subject is highly unusual. As a play Lewis eschews anything like conflict or tension that are conventionally dramatic. Instead, he substitutes our desire to see the blanks of the portrait he is painting through poetry gradually filled in so that we can perceive Nat Love as a whole. The Black cowboy in general, and Nat Love in particular, are figures who should be much more widely known since they radically alter our perception of how the Old West has so often been portrayed. We have to thank Roy Lewis for bringing this topic forward and for immersing himself so fully into the mind of his illustrious subject. Let’s hope that more forums open up for Lewis to present his work.

For tickets, visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.

*Haiku first became known to English-speakers through William George Aston’s History of Japanese Literature (1899), thus, as for Lewis’s purposes, well within Love’s lifetime.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Roy Lewis, © 2020 York Lane Art Collective; Nat Love circa 1876 in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, © 1907 Wayside Press; Nat Love circa 1890 in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, © 1907 Wayside Press.