by Genea L. Webb, For New Pittsburgh Courier
As a kid growing up, Layon Gray was always interested in cowboys. As he grew older, he asked himself if there were any Black cowboys, because he never saw any depicted in movies or television shows.
“Doing my research in the last year or so, I came across Bass Reeves and I was like, ‘wow!’ He was a Black marshal from the 1800s who no one really knows about and I said to myself, ‘there’s never been anything done about this guy especially on stage.’”
So, Gray did more research and put it on stage.
Written and directed by Gray, “Cowboy” tells the story of Bass Reeves, a freed slave who protected the Wild West as the first African American United States Deputy Marshal. Bass is said to have arrested more than 3,000 outlaws without suffering a single gunshot wound. Many have said he inspired the popular Lone Ranger character.
Set in a saloon in Indian territory in 1888, a tornado is slowly approaching as Bass and his Indian partner find themselves stuck inside with a group of outlaws, for one of which Bass has a death warrant.
“Bass Reeves rode around on a white and gray horse, he had an Indian companion and he gave out silver dollars to all of the poor people and the Lone Ranger gave out silver bullets. So it was a striking resemblance to his character and it’s interesting to see the similarities between these two men,” Gray said. “It’s a very interesting and entertaining play.”
“There were Black cowboys—it didn’t begin with Wyatt Earp and all these guys. Our history is there. These men were there and they had a big influence on the Wild West,” Gray said.
The play recently sold out all performances in two days at the 2019 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., in August.
“Cowboy” will serve as the opener for New Horizon Theater Inc.’s 28th season and will run for one weekend only: Oct. 18-20 at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty.
New Horizon Theater Inc. Chairwoman Joyce Meggerson-Moore said she’s excited to begin the 2019-2020 play season with another of Gray’s historical-based productions. New Horizon Theater has presented several of Gray’s plays including “Girls of Summer,” “Black Sparta,” “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” which the company presented twice, and “Kings of Harlem.”
Gray received the first-ever Broadway League Fellowship Award in 2016. In 2018, he earned Carbonell Awards for: best director, play; and best production of a play.
He has spent more than two decades writing, directing and developing stage plays and films that reflect a wide array of African American cultural movements.
“In the last few years Layon has brought four plays to Pittsburgh by way of New Horizon Theater,” Meggerson-Moore said. “We know when we get Layon’s plays we will get a good product. Many of Layon’s plays focus on live, historical people that a lot of people haven’t heard of. His stories are so good because people learn something about our history that we didn’t always know. A lot of the things we do get copied and we don’t get the credit.”
(Tickets prices for “Cowboy” are: $30 general admission; $25 for seniors ages 65 and over; $15 for students and $10 for students under 12 years of age. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Newhorizontheater.org. or kellystrayhorn.org.)
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