|Synopsis of “BUFFALO SOLDIER”
By Janis Contway 2007
The musical “Buffalo Soldier” is based on the true story of Katherine Holmes, a freed slave employed as a maid at Fort Reno, Oklahoma during the late nineteenth century.
The play opens on Katherine in the maid’s quarters of the Commander’s residence at Fort Reno on the barren prairie of Oklahoma. With only God as a companion, she is thankful for her job and the ability to save for a farm where she and her family will no longer be enslaved or abused as sharecroppers.
Singing of being on the “River to Freedom” she dances with only a tablecloth for a partner. Her dance is interrupted by the nomadic Buffalo Soldier, Benjamin Franklin Johnson who is immediately smitten. Katherine sings of the loneliness of the prairie and later accepts his offer to take her to the church in the Cross Timbers.
Ben wins a broken down horse he calls Moses in a poker game and is transferred to fight Indians in the Southwest They exchange letters, and in poetry and song they fall in love. When the letters are delayed, Katherine sings, “Does he still remember me.”
When the commander offers a cabin and a permanent post at the fort, Ben proposes. He declares himself a soldier who will be tied to Katherine for life, but never to a farm. Katherine insists she will follow her dream, but accept his proposal and they are married in the African tradition.
When Ben is transferred to the Southwest they again exchange letters. Katherine describes preparation for the great Land Run of 1889 and Ben writes about the battles and bigotry faced by the Buffalo Soldiers. Katherine writes that she is expecting a child and Ben is delighted.
The Commander gives Katherine a stallion no one can ride. She calls him Absalom and when she hears rumors that freed slaves can make the 1889 land race that will settle Indian Territory’s Unassigned Lands, she begins to tame Absalom. Believing the Land run is the answer to her prayers, she is
saddened to learn it is illegal for U.S. soldiers and their families to claim land. But the Commander tells her an African marriage is not recognized by the U.S. Government therefore Katherine can legally file a claim if she wins the great race for land.
As the birth of her child nears, she is even more determined to win a claim and improve it for a year in order to own it free and clear for her children and her children’s children.
Ben’s letters describe battles with the Indians of the Southwest who the Buffalo Soldiers fight with honor. But when a cowardly officer is assigned to command the Tenth Regiment the troops are ordered to massacre a village of women and children. None of the Buffalo Soldiers can raise their rifle to fire and the officer threatens court marshal. Ben and the Buffalo Soldiers for the first time face shame. Several desert and declaring himself a soldier, not a murderer, Ben realizes he must leave his post.
In prayer the night before the great land run, he determines to accept the permanent position offered by the Commander of Fort Reno. He will ride Moses all night in order to get to Katherine before she can make the dangerous race for land.
At the same time, Katherine filled with fear and not knowing Ben is on his way, sings a prayer turning her will over to God. She awakens to a “Beautiful Day” on the morning of the land run and seeing it as a sign, she saddles Absalom for the race.
When Ben arrives at the cabin he discovers Absalom has fallen on the way from the claims office finds Katherine near death with their newborn son in her arms. As she lies dying, she gives Ben the claim for land and asks him to prove it up for their child.
Holding his newborn son in his arms, Ben decides to he will indeed prove up the claim. Thus Katherine’s dream is fulfilled and she leaves a legacy of love for her child and for generations of children to come.