Two decades later, Black Elk speaks again in Aurora

'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fiske.
‘Black Elk Speaks’ at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fisk.

An hour before the second performance of Black Elk Speaks, all within smelling distance of the burning bowl of sage on the stage of the Aurora Fox Theatre are invited to participate in a Lakota Prayer Circle. Even if you are an interloper carrying a reporter’s notebook. About 20 cast members, their families and theatre personnel circle up as the young girl carrying the bowl allows each person to bathe themselves in the medicinal smoke.

Right hands are placed over hearts and left hands on adjacent shoulders as the spiritual leader, Doug Good Feather, leads a short sermon on the virtues of gratitude and healing.

“The longest journey is to the heart,” Good Feather says to cheers and hugs just before the flock disappears to make final preparations for the evening performance.

A Black Elk 300Then you see the play – a relentless recounting of the systematic genocide that wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the Native American population over a century. And you wonder: How can these descendants of Black Elk, the revered Oglala Lakota medicine man, perform today in the name of healing and peace?

Backstage, Good Feather (pictured above left) mulls that question carefully before answering.

This is a man who was born of two worlds in Standing Rock, S.D., into the band of Sitting Bull. He was raised by grandparents on a reservation and bussed to a public high school where he was taught Columbus and Andrew Jackson were saviors. As a young man, Good Feather fought demons both from within and without. He was taunted and ridiculed at school. He took his fight from the school playground to Iraq, where he served two tours as a U.S. Army reservist. Today, he is a recovering alcoholic, father of eight and spiritual counselor living in Northglenn. He fights back against the ongoing marginalization of his people not with hate, but with history.

“Instead of blaming and shaming,” he says in measured tones, “what is important to me now is that people know the truth about our shared history. Teaching someone the truth will help them to resolve these issues within themselves, and help them to let that go.”

Performing the title role in Black Elks Speaks is one way for him to do that, he says.

The play is based on the book by John Neihardt, who in 1932 was granted access to chronicle Black Elk’s tumultuous life story. It was adapted into a play by Christopher Sergel that DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Donovan Marley staged in 1994 (pictured at right) before bringing it to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Actor Moses Brings Plenty (pictured above right) describes Black Elk as “a living memory of who we once were and who we are today as a people, and who we can be again with love and compassion and a true understanding of coexistence.”   

Audiences of many hues packed the Aurora Fox over the opening weekend to watch the story of a gentle Lakota medicine man who is compelled to tell his Americanized grandson the stories the young man was never taught in school. Among them: The Trail of Tears, the Santee Execution, the Sand Creek Massacre and the atrocity at Wounded Knee. For indigenous audiences, the performance is an empowering opportunity to have their stories told again. For white audiences, it is an opportunity to learn. “Because we are all in this together,” Brings Plenty says. “It’s not an Indian issue. It’s a people issue.” 

This staging of Black Elk Speaks, directed by donnie l. betts, is the first in Colorado since the play was premiered by the Denver Center Theatre Company in 1994. betts, a black man who makes his own statement about marginalization with the intentional lower-casing of his name, was a member of the Theatre Company in 1994 and watched Black Elk Speaks nightly from the wings while performing in another play. The New York Daily News called Black Elk Speaks “harnessed dynamite. No one who sees it will ever forget it.”

Brings Plenty, an accomplished Lakota actor from Kansas City who has appeared on House of Cards and was a stunt rider on The Revenant, plays five roles in the Aurora Fox production of Black Elks Speaks. He is an Oglala Lakota born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota. When asked to show his identification, Brings Plenty will produce not a birth certificate but the prison I.D. card issued by his tribe upon his birth Sept. 4, 1969. This custom is a reminder to all Lakota that they were effectively born as prisoners in their own country. Still, just as Good Feather echoed the words of Black Elk, Brings Plenty seconds the sentiment of Good Feather.

“As long as we continue to play the blame game, we will not achieve any sort of healing,” Brings Plenty said. “We know the true history. But what we want to flow through us to the generations to come is a brighter future and a better life. And not just for our children, but for all human beings.”

The set of the Aurora Fox's 'Black Elk Speaks,' designed by Jen Orf. Photo by John Moore. The set of the Aurora Fox’s ‘Black Elk Speaks,’ designed by Jen Orf. Photo by John Moore.

Good Feather, who performed on a Grammy-winning recording of Native American music, does not consider himself a professional actor. But local theatre audiences may remember him from a polarizing one-man 2007 stage production in Boulder called Prison Writings: My Life is a Sun Dance. Good Feather played Leonard Peltier, who has been jailed for 39 years for the murder of two FBI agents.

Black Elk Speaks, he says simply, is an opportunity to practice what he preaches.

Black Elk quote“If I allow somebody to continue doing wrong things with ignorance and stand back and let it happen, then it’s my fault,” he said. “I need to do something to correct that. That’s what I feel like I am doing out there on the stage. I feel like I am educating people by being a part of this play. We all are, as a collective cast. We still carry these traditions, and they are just as real today as they were back then. And we can use them to help people heal. Because if we keep carrying this animosity, it affects our children. If we carry that trauma and animosity, and we’re constantly angry, and we take that anger out on our children, then that continues to create dysfunction, and the cycle continues. So it has to be broken.”  

These words stand in stark contrast to those being spoken on the campaign trail outside the loving confines of the Aurora Fox, where the Republican Party is on the verge of nominating a presidential candidate who advocates building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and temporarily banning members of the Muslim faith, regardless of nationality.

Doug Good Feather. Black Elk Speaks. Aurora Fox. Christine Fiske. The subject of Donald Trump brings and a dismissive shrug from Good Feather. “I know he is not worthy, because a leader doesn’t lead like that,” he says. “You have to know how to take care of people to be a leader. He’s in a different world. He doesn’t realize the holistic way of our way of life. He’s all material. That’s what he worships. He wants to run this country like he runs his business. That’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Brings Plenty finds no small hypocrisy in Trump, a political descendant of Ronald Reagan, talking about building walls.

“I remember when President Reagan demanded that Russia bring down the wall in Berlin,” Brings Plenty said. “How can the same country that demanded another country take down a wall, now want to build a wall up here?”

Good Feather believes Trump is in for a hard lesson that has resonated among his people for decades: “Once the last deer is hunted and the last fish is caught, you will truly find out that you can’t eat money.”

(Photo at right: Doug Good Feather in ‘Black Elk Speaks.’ Photo by Christine Fisk.)

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Black Elk Speaks: Ticket information

  • Presented by The Aurora Fox
  • Through April 10
  • 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
  • Tickets $24-$31
  • 303-739-1970 or

'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by John Moore.
Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fiske.
‘Black Elk Speaks’ at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fisk.

‘Black Elk Speaks’ at the Aurora Fox. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Backstage photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Black Elk 3
‘Black Elk Speaks’ photo by Christine Fisk.

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