Travelling to Brighton all the way from Kansas City, Crazy Horse: A Dream Of Thunder is both a powerful depiction of an iconic Native American figure, and a reminder of the shameful costs of the famed American dream. It’s a bold move for actor-playwright Sam Wright to take on the mantle of the eponymous Crazy Horse, “the greatest Sioux warrior” – but he proves himself worthy of wearing it. This is a striking, stripped-down, thoughtful piece of theatre, which delivers a capable history lesson while exploring themes just as relevant to our current times.
Set in the mid-1800s, as East Coast settlers on the trail to the West push relentlessly into Native American land, the story’s obvious elements are all there. We hear of cultural ignorance, of the avariciousness of white men, and of the irony of a nation promoting its “pursuit of happiness” by stealing another people’s land. More than that, though, Crazy Horse is a study in internal politics; a tale of how, even in the face of deadly threat, fractious divisions and personal grievances can tear a group apart. There are gentle echoes of the present day, as well – including a telling warning of how easy it is to win a war but lose the peace – yet Wright wisely refrains from highlighting those parallels, instead trusting his audience to tease out the morals for themselves.
The historical tale is a complex one, but both script and performance guide us confidently through the plot. Perhaps there are some missed opportunities to foreshadow what’s to come: to exploit the fact that, even if we’re hazy on the details, we all know that something important will happen at Little Bighorn. But Wright’s storytelling is the model of clarity, frequently calling back to earlier imagery and subtly reminding us of unfamiliar names. As an actor, meanwhile, he’s commanding and convincing in his role as Crazy Horse, while using simple devices such as coloured feathers to bring ancillary characters to life.
Crazy Horse is a warrior, so it’s fitting that he speaks with a strong, sometimes declamatory tone. Wright’s portrayal also maintains a studied sense of distance – pointing both to the disconnection between the settlers and the Native Americans, and to the fact that we know that Crazy Horse is speaking from beyond the grave. Over the course of an hour-long monologue, though, the oratory grows a little wearing; at times, I’d have appreciated much more light and shade. The script does visit some profound emotions, but they’re implied more than they’re displayed.
Still, there’s a genuine and visceral excitement to the battle scenes – and a searing sense of loss as we witness Crazy Horse’s ultimate betrayal, defeat and destruction. The story begins with a prophetic dream; it ends with a prediction, cleverly planted, being cruelly fulfilled. And the play delivers on its promises, too, offering an engrossing hour of theatre with an important story to be told. So if you like to see work that’s factual and thoughtful, you’d be crazy to miss this one.