"And what about our tribe? Speak in me, what?
Tell me the voice that lives inside me, what will happen?
They will know the rapture of exaltation,
the feathers in their hair will make them eagles
over the broken mountains, the lakes will enter
and prickle their cold skins like the fishes,
they will tire like the salmon of a ladder of stones,
and not only the Sioux, not only the Sioux,
the Arapahos, the Cheyennes, the Brules, the Ogalalas,
to the drum in the heart, before the wide silence."
—from The Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance takes place on a cold winter's day on the Dakota plains, when Kicking Bear brings news of a rebellion to a white widow named Catherine Weldon; when the alarm seeps into the tiny fort nearby, its mixed company splinters apart in the face of the perceived threat. First performed in 1989, it is a parable of American life at a crossroads, drawn from a story with a historical conclusion: Sitting Bull and his Sioux followers will die at the hands of the Army and Indian agents.
Walker, first performed as an opera in 1992 and revived (in a revised version) in 2001, is named for David Walker, the nineteenth-century black abolitionist from Boston who advocated violent revolt against slavery and galvanized his generation. In Walcott's hands he is a classic hero, a political leader who is also a poet.
In both Walker and The Ghost Dance, Walcott brings to life the broken communities whose charismatic leaders would change American history.
"These are history plays at their most energetic. Highly recommended . . . These two verse dramas show 1992 Nobel Prize winner Walcott at the top of his form. They are lean, focused, and powerful. The first, Walker, is a recent revision of an opera, first performed in 1992, which has become a play with music. Centering on the last day in the life of black abolitionist David Walker, in Boston on Thanksgiving Day in 1830, it has a small cast, one set, a limited time frame, and swift movement. When the characters rise in passion or when a lyric moment occurs, they break into song, suggesting the austerity of a Greek tragedy. The other play is also historical, set against the larger canvas of the Indian uprisings in North Dakota in 1890. First performed in 1989, The Ghost Dance is a perfectly balanced portrait of the crisis of conscience that white men and women on army posts faced during the sad and hopeless Ghost Dance revivalism, through which the tribes in their last gathering expected to roll back time and restore their world. Walcott's verse here captures the epic nature of this moment in history, giving it character, color, and pathos. The characters are well drawn, the scenes are beautifully built, and the play moves forward with astonishing swiftness."—Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State College, Salem, Massachusetts, Library Journal (starred review)
"These theater pieces by Nobel laureate Walcott illustrate two lesser-known movements in American history . . . Haunting and beautiful, The Ghost Dance uses events surrounding the late-1890s Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indians as the background of a two-act meditation on relations between whites and Indians. Its complex portrait of life in the Old West belies simple-minded settler-bad-Indian-good thinking. Instead, like John Ford in his ambivalent film masterpiece, The Searchers, Walcott presents fascinating characters and allows us to judge them as they are carried along by history."—Jack Helbig, Booklist