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Raven's Son 

by Michael Bowen

For 100 intermission-less minutes in York (at the Civic's Studio Theater through May 20), David Casteal commands the stage -- clapping, stomping, shouting, whooping, pounding his drums with unbelievable frenzy. It's a loud, energized display, full of dancing and singing and joking. In fact, Casteal achieves such thumpa-boom rhythm and volume on his drums that a couple of little kids in the audience were pressing their fingers against their ears.

Casteal is portraying the only black slave on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Playwright Bryan Harnetiaux tries to cram too much into this premiere -- York's boyhood with Clark, the entire outbound and return-trip halves of the epic journey, and an aftermath sweetened by the slave's newfound dream of emancipation -- but there's a very good (though smaller) play in here.

With his lips moving quickly through Southern-inflected stories, Casteal could stand to clarify his diction in several passages. But he manages, even in the quiet moments, to illuminate what must have been the tedium of long days slogging up rivers and across prairies. And he provides comedy -- giggling over practical jokes, mimicking his overly formal white masters.

There's a wonderful light-bulb-going-off moment when York, at the front of a raft, orders men left and right as they shoot the rapids together: a black man, for once, telling whites what to do. Casteal registers the concept without shouting its significance.

Director Susan Hardie keeps things almost excessively lively with costume and lighting changes. The challenge with a one-person show is to achieve some visual variety, and Hardie and her husband, technical director Peter Hardie, have sometimes fallen into the trap of overly abrupt light shifts: lazy on the river/alert in broad daylight/darkness descends on the forest/flashback to York's youth/interior scene before the Massah -- like that, in dizzying succession.

There's a sequence on the return trip that jumps in emotional tone, too, from when Lewis comically receives bullet wounds in the buttocks, to when the explorers grieve at graveside of Sgt. Floyd (the expedition's only fatality), to the celebrations and reunions in St. Louis. At that point, events are tumbling forth undigested. But for the most part, Susan Hardie keeps the proceedings varied but measured.

Peter Hardie's multilevel set, with drums and stools scattered about -- Nik Adams has painted a feathered arrow on its wooden floor -- helps create a variety of spaces for York to narrate his life events, from pan-frying catfish to first catching sight of the Pacific.

York is indeed a narrative crammed with incidents. And with Casteal sometimes "conversing" with circles of light -- fellow slaves, Clark as boy and man, enlisted men in the Corps of Discovery and many others -- the question arises as to why Harnetiaux confined himself to a solo-actor format.

But unlike some one-person shows, which seem to exist mostly to show off how many characters a single actor can portray in a virtuoso evening, York is justified in depicting a single individual: The entire point, after all, is the growth of an important realization within one man. By watching Casteal's portrayal of York, we re-experience the injustices of slavery and the worth of freedom's promise.

If he had concluded with the winter at Fort Clatsop -- during which rainy season both York and Sacajeawea participated in a precedent-shattering vote about the expedition's future -- Harnetiaux might still have been able to make most of his thematic points. Retelling the entire Lewis and Clark experience (and from a marginalized figure's perspective) presents some structural problems. The care that Harnetiaux and dramaturg Cynthia White used, however, is evident in the comic deflation of the first Indian sighting and the lovely, defiant symbolism of York's final speech.

Lewis and Clark bicentennial fever must be on the rise, because opening night was sold out, with playgoers filling all four risers for this theater-in-the-round experience. Yet while the Corps of Discovery changed history, the canoes and flat-bottom boats didn't sail far enough. The freedom that a black man and an Indian woman could experience out in the wilderness was just too radical to make the return trip back to St. Louis and beyond.

Memories of York's first edition will rest with Casteal -- drumming, yelping, dancing, hunting, shooting the rapids with the frenzy of a caged man suddenly set free to roam about the western half of a continent. We're told at one point that the Indians, fascinated by his black skin, called him Raven's Son.

In a play much concerned with names and naming -- the unseen Clark alone, for example, goes variously by Billy, Massah, Master, Captain and Governor -- York learns amid civilization to finger-spell the four letters of his name, only to discover the real value of his African heritage when he's out in the wilderness. It takes an alien to tell an alien: As part of an expedition meant to expand the boundaries of freedom, York learns from doomed Indians what it means to be free.

Publication date: 05/05/05

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