By John Quinn
As the Lakota tell the tale, during a time of drought and famine, White Buffalo Calf Woman came among them. She brought them the buffalo, and taught her people many rituals and other knowledge. Most important of all, she gave them a sacred pipe, the chununpa, holiest of all Lakota worship symbols, which opens communication between Deity and Man. Her tasks complete, she transformed into a bright white buffalo, but promised to return in times of darkness and sorrow.
This strikingly beautiful myth is the centerpiece of the award-winning “White Buffalo” by Don Zolidis, which is receiving its world premiere at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre. Opening on a weekend when two major world religions celebrate their salvations, “White Buffalo” is yet another reminder, as writer Joseph Campbell often quoted from the Vedas, “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.” Some truths are so profound they can only be expressed through myth.
If the story isn’t fascinating enough, the back story is remarkable. “White Buffalo” is inspired by the birth of Miracle, a buffalo she-calf – white, but not albino – born on the farm of Dave, Valerie and Corey Heider near Janesville, Wisconsin ( Zolidis’s home town) on Aug. 20, 1994. Recognizing the cultural and spiritual significance not only for the Plains People but for peace-seekers worldwide, the Heiders opened their farm to one and all. The family took no profit from the 10-year experience of their home being holy ground to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
Those are the facts upon which Zolidis builds his fiction. When a white buffalo, named “Hope,” is born on Carol Gelling’s (Michelle Mountain) small Wisconsin farm, she and daughter Abby (Stacie Hadgikosti) consider it odd, but no big deal. It’s not until John Two Rivers (Michael Brian Ogden), a young Lakota who arrives magus-like at the stable, tells the women the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman that they realize her birth is a prophecy of peace and unity. The publicity reaches Carol’s long-estranged husband (Alex Leydenfrost), whose return further complicates Carol’s life. But John and Alex are not the only ones with a special interest in Hope. Wealthy businessman Anderson Wilkes (David Daoust) offers $2 million for the calf; Carol and Abby are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Do they profit on the piety of others, or preserve the sacred trust handed them?
The characters Zolidis has created for “White Buffalo” are utterly compelling. None of them is based on stereotype. Their motivations and behavior are as unpredictable as – well – real people. This is especially true of John Two Rivers, who is conflicted by the contrast between the traditional symbol of salvation and the harsh reality of modern tribal life. Yet the five characters mentioned are literally only half the story.
There are four more cast members, clad brilliantly by costumer Christianne Myers in the traditional skin robes and shirts of the Plains peoples. They act as a chorus, and with the help of drummer Gregory Butka tell the legends, intone the prayers, and act in the place of the thousands of visitors. For someone raised in European tradition, their presence is wonderfully expressionistic. As First Woman (Rainbow Dickerson) dances before the calf, her sheer joy washes over us. It is a very special moment between artist and audience, thanks in no small part to Rhiannon Ragland’s choreography.
Guy Sanville, perennial Purple Rose favorite and director of “White Buffalo,” gifts us with a worthy premiere of a worthy play. If Miracle’s birth on that Wisconsin farm didn’t quite herald peace on Earth, good will towards men, it is our responsibility not to give up “Hope.” Again in the words of Joseph Campbell, “Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another.” The artists in Chelsea are holding up their end of the bargain; can we do less?
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through June 2, plus Tuesday, May 29; no performance April 8. $17.50-40. 120 minutes. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org