When we share stories of our cultures and those we have lost, it reminds the world of the struggles people have faced that have been swept under the rug throughout history.
Educating the unacquainted while trying to heal their wounds, artists use the ancient art of storytelling to open doors for a different future for the coming generations. The storytellers of the African American community aim to honor and expose the suppression that has happened to their people, and Layon Gray exhibits this ability with the words he puts on paper.
Cowboy is just one of the many plays centered around the African American experience that Gray has provided for the world of theater. Now you have the chance to see this story come to life this June at The M Ensemble Company.
The evening will take you to the state of Oklahoma during 1888, twenty-three years after slavery was removed from America. Following the life of Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal, and his half black/half native American partner Grant Johnson. Bass Reeves successfully arrested over 3,000 outlaws, walking away without a single gun wound. One day they receive a warrant for the capture of two criminals known as The Colton Brothers. Traveling through the wild west, they find them inside of a saloon. They didn’t expect a deadly tornado that will soon trap them inside with the very criminals they are trying to apprehend.
I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Layon Gray, Shirley Richardson, and Reginald Wilson about Cowboy and The M Ensemble Company. These three have worked together on past productions, some being other plays from Layon Gray, Kings of Harlem. All have similar missions for their community. They each play an essential role in making this show come to life.
Opening up to me about Cowboy and its essence, Layon Gray gave insight into what this show means.
“It’s interesting because they have many moments in the play where they probably could capture them, but it’s the stories that they each talk about. Stories of Losing family members and searching for a family: Most of the play is about searching for the freedom they didn’t have. This play isn’t just Bass Reeves. It’s the journey of the African slave,” said Gray.
A journey that many individuals had in common. This bond is something outsiders can’t understand. Layon explains the complexities of this kind of bond in the context of Cowboy.
“You have this beautiful tug of war between them. One on the side of the law and one against this law, yet they have this common denominator that they both can identify with, which was slavery,” Gray continued.
This historical commentary provides a representation of the past lives of American slaves, presenting how trauma from suppression can mark a community forever.
Asking Layon about his process this time around with Cowboy, I wondered if anything new had come to him that he didn’t see in the past.
“Just last rehearsal, the whole last five pages I cut and just changed them up in that last moment because I thought it would work better.”
Layon first came across this story when working on another one of his plays called Black Sparta. He tucked it away for a later date and one day just got to writing.
“I was digging through some boxes, and long behold, there it was. When I began creating it for the National Black Theatre Festival, it became a hit. I knew this would be interesting to put on stage, and people flocked out to see it,” Gray mentioned.
Promotional Photo of Cowboy
Just like myself, Layon hadn’t heard of Bass Reeves before the day he discovered him, but he believes the stories he needs to tell find him in the end. Western representation in art lacks any proof of African American existence, but we know they were there. He creates these fictional situations around historical heroes to give him the creative freedom to work around the themes he hopes to catch the audience’s attention. The old tale of the Lone ranger told times and times again was believed to be based on the story of Bass Reeves. If you put these plotlines side by side, the only real difference is the skin tone.
“A story that’s not told, a lot of people never knew about this guy. Myself as a writer, I love to bring these unique stories to life,” stated Gray.
I asked him about what audience he thinks would benefit from seeing this show the most. The story would do to those who came to see it and what he hopes the audience will gain from it.
“If you like history, especially African American history, this is a show you should come and see. I think people will come to see this show and get their journey from that side of the story. Especially if you love a good old western, you’re going to love this because there’s a lot of shoot-em-up in this piece—a lot of cat and mouse. On top of that, you have this big tornado about to come and destroy this saloon. So, if you like excitement, this is something you will enjoy, “Layon vocalized.
When speaking to Reginald Wilson, an active member of the cast who has spent countless hours working on this production alongside Layon Gray, I wanted to know more about what it’s been like during the rehearsal process. Wilson travels from Tampa to Miami for every rehearsal, dedicating his hard time to making sure this show pops off with a bang.
“When I got a callback for the role, I was ecstatic. I’m having fun,” Wilson declared.
I was querying him about how it’s been working with the playwright in the room not only as of the director but as a cast member as well.
“Layon is my mutual. He doesn’t know that. But I watch him. I’ve been watching his every move, and I’ve been doing that since Black Angels (a production they worked on together). I also act in my shows, so I have experience. I know what that’s like.” He continued into the prospect that is Layon Gray. “I commend Layon because he has this eye where he can see everything, and I’m like: “Yo, you’re on stage, how did you catch that?” I’m learning that it’s a different beast, and a lot of people will say that they don’t think the playwright should direct, but I think it’s possible.”
Opening at The M Ensemble Company in the heart of Little Haiti, I discussed the theatre with Shirley Richardson, one of the co-founders of M Ensemble. Keeping the same mission, they were built on; they provide a space for everyone who wants to participate in theatre around the African American experience.
“In our 50th year in this business, which is a huge milestone for us, for this company from wince we came,” says Richardson.
T.g Cooper was the founder who was teaching at Howard University before coming back to Miami to pursue his master’s degree in theater.
“We didn’t have a platform there before T.G. came,” said Richardson.
This is where he met Shirley and Patricia, the other founding members of the company. When moving back to Miami, T.G Cooper had hopes of creating M Ensemble as a place for him to put on his shows while actively encouraging African Americans of the arts community to use their voices.
Before Covid-19 hit hard on Miami, M Ensemble was putting on a production that was shut down due to the stay-at-home order. However, their children’s theatre program was able to continue virtually. This will be the first show they will be putting on life since then.
“It’s important to support theater, especially African American theater. Just as Layon once wrote in Kings of Harlem: “every story deserves to be heard,” and that’s how we feel about what we do,” she continues, “To produce work by African Americans for African Americans and anyone else who wants to hear these stories.”
Unfortunately, financial tribulations, like most theaters, were passed on by the pandemic. But thankfully, with the help of grants and other funding, this theater will be able to continue putting on seasons.
Anyone interested in getting involved with M Ensemble is welcome to. Always needing volunteers to help with these productions, I asked Sherly how they go about that process which she replied with,
“We accept those who are committed to the process. You can learn a lot by participating. All that it takes to do good theatre, any of those who have these special talents welcomes you to come on board and become a part of this company. We need lots of volunteers for many things. All those things are important to this company.”