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`Black Elk Speaks' Wins Audience Raves

Play featuring native-American cast recounts the Oglala Sioux version of history from Columbus to Wounded Knee

THE ``winning of the West'' took many battles.

Sometimes the Indians won great military victories, but in the end, they lost the war. Various attempts have been made to tell their side of the story in film, theater, and television: The hit film ``Dances with Wolves,'' for example, carved out a moment in Indian history before the wars of the Great Plains began.

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A powerful, moving historical drama about the conflict between Indians and whites, Christopher Sergel's ``Black Elk Speaks,'' is enjoying its world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company, where it will play through Oct. 30. The play has received standing ovations nightly because it is better than a mere indictment of government policy toward the Indians, Manifest Destiny, or even white failure to respect treaties. Its most insistent argument is for reconciliation.

Based loosely on a classic oral history as retold in 1932 by poet John Niedhardt, the play ``Black Elk Speaks'' covers a wide range of territory. It is a thumbnail history of Indian-European contact from Columbus to the 1890 massacre of peaceful Indians at Wounded Knee, S.D.

Assisted by Donovan Marley, the Denver theater's artistic director, who helped the playwright give theatrical structure to 400 years of data, Sergel shapes this history as a story told by an old shaman to his adolescent grandson. Black Elk recounts his narrative as a history of all Indians, so that his Oglala Sioux tradition is seen as one among many Indian traditions united at last.

The entire cast is native American, which contributes to the pan-Indian feeling. Indians take all the white roles as well (dressing in buckskin variations of United States Army uniforms), creating a running parody of movie westerns in which whites took Indian roles and emphasizing how one's perspective changes history.

As he tells his tale of the Indian struggle to retain lands and self-determination, Black Elk (played with ever-expanding dignity and intensity by Ned Romero) calls up vignettes about great Indian leaders like Red Cloud, Black Kettle, Manuelito, and Crazy Horse, one of the greatest military leaders of the age, as they confront their enemies, consider strategy in council, make treaties, or do battle. The most gripping moments - the battle of Little Big Horn, the murder of Crazy Horse, and the massacres of Indian women, children, and old men at Sand Creek, Colo., Washita River in Oklahoma, and Wounded Knee - are performed in stylized and graceful choreography. The performances are riveting, the material explosive.

It's not an entirely balanced view of these events. No mention is made of Indian atrocities, tribal warfare, or fair exchanges for lands. Nor is the escape from poverty and misery that westward expansion meant to so many whites mentioned - it wasn't always greed that motivated folks moving west.

There are many broad strokes of color and humor, many simplifications of complex issues, some stereotyping and a lot of parody of white Americans. But turnabout is fair play: Think how often Indians have been stereotyped, massacres of their people minimized, and treaties broken. After all, it's the Indians' side of the story represented here, and the Indians who lost the war.

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Moreover, the structure of the play goes far in evoking the many threads of behavior and attitudes, the complexities of interweaving lives making up the history of this period. Not all the whites are bad. Some treaties were honored.

If the play had ended in stern accusation, it would have numbed the audience. No one alive today was there at the time. The question is, what are we doing now? Out of the disaster that was Wounded Knee comes one last dream: that of reconciliation and mutual respect.

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