DRAMA ABOUT INDIAN LEADER BLACK ELK RAISES POTENT ISSUES

True to the Oglala Sioux tradition of community storytelling, audiences who hear the story of the late holy man Black Elk sit in a circle and watch a vision come to life.

``Black Elk Speaks,'' an adaptation of the 1932 book of the same name, is a disturbing tale of how the West was lost, as told from a native American perspective.

Black Elk was an eyewitness to his people's troubles from the late 1800s into the middle of this century. He survived the battle at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, and met Queen Victoria while performing in Buffalo Bill's touring troupe. After seeing his people pushed out of their lands by the settlers' westward advance, a despairing Black Elk told his story to poet John G. Neihardt.

The oral history inspired the play, the latest export from the Denver Center Theatre Company to the Mark Taper Forum here. It runs through Feb. 26.

The storytelling is accompanied by drums, dances, and chants, and is narrated by Ned Romero, an actor familiar from television and movies. With a resonant voice, Romero opens the play with a prayer. Black Elk wants to return to the old ways, ``to walk the good earth, a relative to all that is.'' But the holy man has no solutions, just painful memories.

``He didn't realize what his mission was ... thinking that he had to do something,'' Romero says. ``His mission really was to tell the story.''

Just as Black Elk instructed Neihardt, the Black Elk character in the play conjures up images from history for the benefit of his rebellious grandson, who has renounced Lakota tradition.

Romero commands the narrative, directing the all-native American cast of 24 to take on the roles of both famous chiefs and military leaders. The white characters are portrayed one-dimensionally, just as American Indians have been in the past.

Black Elk's great-grandson, Aaron DeSersa, says the play's perspective is part of history, too. ``It's always been one-sided; all the history has been put together by the government agencies. This was one of the first stories ever told by the Indians.''

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