Photo by Craig Vandershaegen
Who would have thought that white, Scandinavian Minnesota started out as this multicultural world?” says playwright Carlyle Brown with a laugh, and his point is apt—we tend to think of the very earliest days of what we now know as our home state as a nebulous stretch of frozen past. But it was a complex, multi-racial world driven by European demand for beaver pelts, and the considerable power of the native Ojibwe.
For his new play, Brown draws upon one of the more unique figures in Minnesota’s history. George Bonga was one of the first African Americans born in the territory, albeit to an Ojibwe mother. His father was a successful trader, and George was sent to be educated in Montreal. Eventually he became a trader himself, an interpreter, and, in his final years, a lodge-keeper on Leech Lake with a propensity for telling stories of
One of the more vivid of his exploits came in 1837, when he tracked an Ojibwe warrior accused of murder through lower-northern Minnesota. George Bonga takes place during that six days and six nights in the dead of winter, with powerhouse actor James A. Willliams in the title role. Bonga eventually got his man, but in the play as well as in life, the quest and its eventual results hinged on a web of ethnicities and cultures we would scarcely recognize today.
When he was doing research, Brown was struck by how the central figures of the era are now the names of streets and counties in the Twin Cities and across the state; in its day, the fur trade in the territory rivaled other global markets in commodities such as tea and opium. “It’s the outcome of this trade and its relationship with Native Americans that really created the wealth that industrialized Minnesota,” Brown adds. “And it’s the Native Americans who got the short end
of the stick.”
Brown relied on a series of letters Bonga wrote to a sawmill owner in Minneapolis, mostly about the trade and its impact on Native Americans, to get a sense of the voyageur’s voice. And he drew on a poetic sense of the outdoors: Bonga was a big man, reportedly staggeringly strong, both well educated and an accomplished frontiersman. Finally, he had to work his way around a narrative that
involves a good deal of foot travel taking place on a single stage.
Recalling a college writing course he taught, Brown remembers pointing out the impracticality of a student wanting to write a play with characters walking through the forest. “I have my foot in my mouth now,” he says. “I just wrote a play about two guys walking through the woods!”
George Bonga: Black Voyageur