By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Western is one of the most familiar genres in both film and theater. and brings to mind characters like the Lone Ranger, Butch Cassidy, and Shane. While it is doubtless how influential these cultural figures have been, they fail to tell the full story of the American West, a story playwright Layon Gray hopes to show Pittsburgh audiences a different side of.
New Horizons Theater will kick off its 2019-2020 season with the Pittsburgh debut of Cowboy, written and directed by Layon Gray. This will be the first iteration of the play following its debut at the 2019 National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Cowboy is based on the life of Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshall in American history. Over his 32-year career, he apprehended more than 3,000 wanted felons, including some of the most dangerous criminals of the time. Despite this, he killed just 14 men in self-defense and was never wounded in the line of duty. According to Tommie Moore, who portrays Reeves in Cowboy, this was the result of his sophisticated detective skills.
“He liked to trick people to arrest them. If you had a warrant, he’d trick you, befriend you,” says Moore.
Set in Oklahoma Indian territory in 1888, the play follows Reeves and his companion on their search for the Colton brothers, two outlaws fleeing to the Mexican border.
“The play is centered around [Reeves] and his Indian companion, searching for two wanted criminals,” says Layon Gray. “They all find themselves stuck in a saloon as a tornado is approaching.”
Taking place just 23 years after the abolition of slavery, the wide-ranging impacts of the institution manifest themselves in the show’s central characters. Just one of these effects, Gray discovered, was that after the slaves were freed in 1865, many of them traveled significant distances to find family members they had been separated from during slavery.
“The play is centered a lot around that, what happened post-slavery to the African-American male and female,” says Gray.
The character of Levi Colton in Cowboy, for instance, was born into slavery with his brother. During their childhood, his brother was sold to another plantation. They would not reconnect until after slavery was abolished.
“So many of these men had the scars of slavery, and that’s the case with Levi Colton,” says Thaddeus Daniels, who portrays Colton. “He has lived through slavery, and is now getting a chance for the first time to see how big this country actually is.”
This deep connection to African American history is a signature of Gray’s work, as he strives to tell stories that aren’t taught in history classes.
“I love to write about history, particularly African-American history, stories no one really knows about, from the African-American perspective,” Gray says.
His passion for history is evident from his very first play, “Meet Me At The Oak,” which tells the story of a black family in 1950s Louisiana and their deep connection to a large oak tree, once a hanging tree. “Meet Me At The Oak” opened in Los Angeles in 2003 under Gray’s direction, and received numerous accolades, including Best Play, Best Writer, and Best Director at the Los Angeles MADDY Awards that year.
Other plays Gray has written and directed include Black Angels Over Tuskegee about the Tuskegee airmen, and Kings of Harlem, about the 1939 Harlem Rens basketball team. Both of these plays, like Cowboy, had some of their earliest productions at the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina. Cowboy received rave reviews at the 2019 Festival, selling out all four performances before opening night.
“Everyone was really interested in seeing this old Western on stage about black cowboys, because you never see these in the old Western movies,” Gray says.
For Gray, bringing the show to New Horizons Theater is a natural next step, having worked with them three times before. Cowboy, however, will be his most technologically ambitious production with New Horizons to date.
“This particular play, from a technical standpoint, has been my most challenging, yet most fun,” Gray says. “We use projections, we use video. A tornado is coming, and when that tornado hits, the audience is gonna lose their minds.”
But while entertainment is always the primary goal of a good show, Gray and his cast hope that the audiences will also take with them a deeper knowledge of the black men and women who bravely forged a path West.
“Bass Reeves is the first US Deputy Marshall, his story should be told,” says Moore. “There’s other people out there whose stories should be told, and not forgotten.”
Daniels adds, “I really want them to understand the scars of slavery and what it can do to individuals, but also the resiliency that it created in us as a people, to go on no matter what, to not be broken.”
“What I would like them to take away is the understanding of the journey from where these men came from as slaves, to becoming free men and going on and doing wonderful things in the world,” says Gray.