Among the two dozen characters in Martin Giles' world-premiere play inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, perhaps the most intriguing is the lone Native American, a droll and somewhat cryptic fellow with the tongue-in-cheek name of Black Cloud.
Black Cloud is the first character encountered in Act II by the play's three protagonists, then halfway into their picaresque journey from East to West in mid-19th-century America. Somewhere on the edge of the Great Plains, the three stop to eat, and don't even notice Black Cloud until he speaks.
That functional invisibility is probably significant in itself. Then come Black Cloud's darkly humorous warnings about the dangers inherent in this vast land; his intimations that the travelers -- Americans all, two whites and an escaped black slave -- are really more like trespassers; and his self-admittedly "melancholy" reflections on the dead ancestors whose tomb he is sitting cross-legged upon.
Black Cloud is one of five characters played by Michael Fuller, who joins Daniel Krell, Daina Michelle Griffith and Allison Moody in the fine ensemble cast in this entertaining show. (The production also includes some 20 Foster songs, in new arrangements by Douglas Levine and performed to live accompaniment by Levine, Jonathan Moser, John Marcinizyn and Paul Thompson).
But while Black Cloud -- like most of the characters Giles has written -- is largely comedic, he might be the hardest to laugh off.
In an epic and episodic play filled with betraying pals, lynching-minded Southern bumpkins, simple frontier folk, historical cameos and more, Black Cloud is the one who most clearly comes from someplace else -- someplace that's not the burgeoning Western Civ of money-making, pleasure-seeking and personal fulfillment.
Giles' protagonists certainly don't know what to make of him: Despite the perils they've already faced, for once they're nonplussed, and simply leave the red man to himself. They don't want to hear what he has to say, and thus it's a moment in the play where the audience feels least close to the three heroes (played by Kevin Brown, Joel Ripka and Stephanie Riso), as they deflect what amount to Black Cloud's charges of racism and imperialism. We the audience may be clued in to the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and genocide, but Giles' protagonists aren't, and indeed can't be.
The scene is thus also the moment where, for me at least, Giles' ambition to write in the Brechtian tradition is clearest: The audience is shown the distance between itself and characters it's surely begun to identify with.
Black Cloud is clearly a character Giles loves. (OK, he told me so himself, in the interviews for my preview feature on the show: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A77883.) And so while there's plenty of reasons to see this PICT/Opera Theater co-production before it closes on on Sat., May 1, maybe there's more life not just in the show, but in this character too. "An Evening With Black Cloud," perhaps?