Yellowstone Park, May of 2016: African tourists spot a lone, wandering baby bison, and, thinking it abandoned by its herd, put it into the back of their SUV and took it to the park rangers. Rangers “tried repeatedly to reunite the newborn bison calf with the herd,” and Yellowstone subsequently issued a statement that “the bison calf was later euthanized because it was abandoned and causing a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway.” (Washington Post)
The tourists were fined for violating park regulations, but many were outraged by the human interference at the reserve, despite published warnings to stay away from the wildlife. Other opinions stated that the calf was already doomed, and that the human intervention ultimately resulted in a better ending for the baby bison.
Inspired by this story, Ciara Griffin and Kendra Potter have written The Buffalo Play, currently being performed in The Tank’s tiny black box theater in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. In this play, the tourists are replaced by one well-meaning woman, whose sleeping form is seen in a jail cell as the audience is seated.
The lights change, and a woman’s voice utters the first three words of the play, “I remember forgetting,” an oxymoron which immediately establishes the promise of a script with intellectual heft.
The woman is awakened by the entrance of a female bison, who carries her dead baby into the cell and lays down with it in mourning. The woman and the adult bison are portrayed by none other than playwrights Griffin and Potter, respectively. Eventually sharing the cell with the woman and the bison is Hank, a park ranger (Jeremy Sher), and there are appearances of the baby bison herself, in the form of a “light being” (a very young Sukha Belle Potter).
For the duration of the play, both females of their species learns a little bit more about the other’s world–the animal world by the humans, and the reverse–and in the process they become enlightened by the danger of good intentions, the conflict of man vs. nature, the power of motherly instinct, the depth of loss, the bloodlust of mob mentality, and the beauty of forgiveness, all in 65 minutes and with the literary lightness of a feather quill.
The play culminates in a powerfully choreographed moment, when man, woman and bison literally reach into themselves and pull out visceral memories, unifying them in their sameness to each other; these memories take the form of sinews which are entangled about the stage at the end of the moment. The woman, having momentarily regressed to her animal self, catches, kills and eats a squirrel, smeared guts on her face and a wild hungry look in her eye. It is in this state that the opening words of the play most resonate:
Forgetting the rhythms of the earth
The language of weather, once fluent
Animal hunger, from need not want,
Forgetting the feeling of soil on bare feet
Sound (designed by Peter Musante), lighting (Mason Wagner), costumes (Sarah Kelly), and props (Ben Seratt) converge in perfect unison, thanks to the talents of this production team. Ultimately, the words are stronger than the actors, but director Wagner weaves them together into true and powerful moments.
Folks, this is no ordinary play, and it’s not for everyone. Call it an absurd commentary, a daydream, a nightmare, a fantasia, a memory play–come see it and decide what you want to call it.
The Buffalo Play (through May 23, 2019)
MT + NYC Collaborative and BetweenTheLines Theatre
The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, 1st Floor, in Manhattan (use back elevator only)
For tickets call 212-563-6269 or visit https://www.thetanknyc.org/the-buffalo-play
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission