There is something about a true story that pulls on us, especially one that tells the tale of Richmond’s own. Bruce Miller’s Buffalo Soldier, playing at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theater at Willow Lawn, presents such a truth about Jones Morgan, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who lived among us, largely unnoticed, until he died at the age of 110 years old. Yes, 110.
Morgan had a secret. He had been an original Buffalo Soldier. Before the play, I knew little about this elite force, but that is the story’s aim: to give you the facts, to educate, and let you know the truth, so you can spread it around. Soldiering and guns are big in my house, so I told Atticus to get his shoes on, so we both could learn something new at the theatre.
Morgan, played by Jim Bynum, joined the Army at fifteen as part of a new movement of wage-earning African Americans who helped protect and defend our country for thirteen dollars a week.
The phrase “Send in the cavalry!” was coined, in part, because this crew of black soldiers got the job done. In fact, the Cheyenne Indians were so impressed with the force’s prowess, they named these men, Buffalo Soldiers, honoring their skill and bravery with the title of an animal they considered the most sacred.
The Buffalo Soldiers were called in to take care of business, and that’s what they did. The play’s focus takes place on Kettle Hill, which most of us would think is San Juan, but expertly crafted script does a good job of expanding on the legend of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Spanish-American War that we might think we already know.
Though Atticus, closing in on seven, got lost in the dramatic flashbacks and characters being played as young men and then old, I found myself humbled learning new history. At one point in the play, the audience finds itself serving as a school’s student body in a make-believe auditorium. The principal, played by Adrian Grantz, takes to the intercom and shoots down Morgan’s story, which is the undertone of the play: No one believes an old man without proof.
In fact, the real Jones Morgan died a pauper here in Richmond and only received his veteran’s benefits notice weeks after he died. But that’s the play’s aim and its success. It helps give praise to a man who lived out his days without recognition, partly because when he was discovered to be fifteen (and too young to serve), he was let go from the Army. A great line from the play explains, “They don’t give you discharge papers when you’re not supposed to be there in the first place.”
Atticus liked the muskets and the two musical numbers most of all. I liked the idea that stories are around us everywhere. They just need to be found and told. Bynum sings, “If I remember, I’m alive. If you remember me, I am living.”
Buffalo Soldier runs through February 26 at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. The show is for adults and for about seven and up.
Visit Virginia Rep for tickets and showtimes.