Editor’s note: Since this article ran the show’s title has changed to “6 Guns Runnin’: A Black Cowgirl Musical.” It’s showing at the Benson Theatre August 18, 19 and 20 and tickets are $15. It was previously titled “Buffalo Women” and was scheduled for June at the Benson Theatre.

In my first encounter with Beaufield Berry, all that was visible was the back of her head at the BlueBarn Theatre during a performance of her play, “Red Summer,” in 2019. She had agreed to an interview about the show, which depicted the life of Will Brown and the events leading to his lynching during the Omaha race riots of 1919.

The plan was simple: Watch the play, introduce myself, schmooze, and lay the groundwork for the following week’s conversation.

The reality was more complicated: “Red Summer” is such a powerful, moving piece of art that I was too overwhelmed to talk to anyone after the curtains closed. All I could do was confront our city’s ugly history, wonder how far we’d really come, and marvel at the humanity Berry brought to the stage in her masterful telling of this story. More than good, more than great, the consensus among the audience was that we’d just experienced something fundamentally important, existing within the tradition of using fiction to reflect on the past and its ripples into the present.

Her new production, which will be performed August 18-20 at the Benson Theatre, is “6 Guns Runnin’: A Black Cowgirl Musical.” Berry has described it as a “Black cowgirl musical dramedy.” Not exactly a genre that most playwrights dabble in. Instead it draws from several tropes and genres across a wide tonal spectrum to create something new. It’s too simple to call it “an intentional pivot” from the “really difficult” “Red Summer,” she said, though “6 Guns” did grow out of what she learned from the former production.

Again, Berry leaned on history.

“Out of our five characters,” the Omaha playwright said, “three of them are based on real-life women: Cathay Williams, Stagecoach Mary, and Biddy Mason. These three women’s stories have largely gone untold. All of them were former slaves. And then our two hybrid characters [are] based on historical facts, but I fictionalized them for the play’s purposes. They were also former slaves.”

Beaufield Berry
Photo courtesy of Beaufield Berry

Like “Red Summer” before it, “6 Guns” draws on trauma rooted in structural racism within America’s past, though Berry clarified: “I don’t want to live in that space. This is a really empowered space for [our characters] and for our audience. This show’s so much bigger than the story of slavery, because it’s the story of grit and redemption and sisterhood and motherhood, which I think are just things that we overlook because there’s so much trauma around slavery that we don’t really talk about what the aftereffects are.”

A recurring focus in Berry’s work is addressing what has been overlooked in our cultural narratives – people, communities, struggles – and to use art to reclaim what has been lost along the way. It’s hard not to feel an urgency in this mission. Over the past few years, 36 states have either passed or introduced proposals that would restrict teaching the history of racism and the art that reckons with it – something Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen made a centerpiece of his successful campaign for the statehouse. Pillen has since promised to continue to make efforts to restrict what kind of history with which Nebraskans can – and, in his view, should – engage.

America exists, perhaps perpetually, at a crossroads on this question: What do we do with our past? Can it be molded into shapes that are more appealing and easier to accept than the messiness and myriad tragedies of history? Can trauma be smoothed over if it is ignored? And for whom?

For Berry, it’s a fool’s errand to run from history, to pretend it’s anything but what it was, and she lets this inform her art. “It’s literally in my DNA,” she said. “I think that’s why it’s important.” And, in the case of “6 Guns,” it was always going to be a musical.

“In 2020,” Berry said, “I [posted] on my Facebook, ‘I want to put on a musical.’”

Two complications quickly arose: In 2020, nearly every performance venue shut down during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she had never written a musical. Facing what many may have found to be insurmountable hurdles, Berry didn’t give up.

“‘I’m gonna do it in the park somewhere,’” she said with a laugh, recalling how her motivation manifested during lockdown before she had a plan.

She’d do this all on her own if she needed to. But she didn’t need to.

“Omaha has supported this show since the beginning,” she said. “People gave their time and their energy, they gave their money, to support me and the show.”

The BlueBarn workshopped an early iteration of “6 Guns” with outdoor performances and intentions for a full production as Berry worked through the evolution of the concept and its tricky genre navigations.

Beaufield Berry and the Cast of “6 Guns Runnin’: A Black Cowgirl Musical
Photo courtesy of Beaufield Berry

Why a Western? Maybe the stuffiest of stuffy, old white-guy genres?

Berry acknowledges that this was the appeal: “I grew up with my grandfathers loving Westerns,” she said, “watching all the John Wayne movies.”

But, of course, just because the classics of the genre focused on the white men of these eras doesn’t mean they told the whole story. Often Hollywood, in its mythmaking of the American frontier, didn’t so much overlook as exclude, leaving a door closed that someone like Berry couldn’t resist opening.

“I grew up hearing stories about Bass Reeves, some of the Black cowboys,” she said. “And then in turn, I have my own kind of love of Western folklore. All of the old stories of Dodge City and Tombstone and all of that. I really have a – I wouldn’t say a passion for it – but I definitely love it. So it really inspired me to think: ‘Well, who else was on the Western front?’”

Just how inclusive can the Western be? Berry isn’t alone in wondering. Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. marshal, recently became a major figure in HBO’s “Watchmen.” Netflix’s “The Harder They Fall” had a principal cast of entirely Black men and women loosely based on figures from the 19th century. But can you go further? Berry stresses that “6 Guns” was designed to embody “true inclusivity. You can cast it from 18-90 in age, it’s designed for all sizes and shades of Black women, [including] roles for both trans and disabled actors.”

She found Tricia Martineau Wagner’s “African American Women of the Old West,” and then, she said, “I knew immediately I wanted to make a musical based on whatever I was gonna find in that book. And it really didn’t disappoint.” Within this framework, she created space for saloon songs, R&B, rap, honky-tonk, and ballads – mixing the old with the new.

The plot is both familiar to fans of the genre – a woman searching for her child – and a platform for Berry to continue to engage in innovative ways with history, legacy, and personal growth. “Along the way,” Berry said, “she meets all of these other women who help in that effort. And we watch her battle those aftereffects [of enslavement]. We watch the nightmares. We watch the breakdowns, the loss of faith. But she wakes up. And laughs with her friends. And she drinks a cup of coffee. And she gets back on her horse. And that’s the real story.”

Life throws any number of curveballs, and this is what Berry does: She gets back on her horse. When creative differences led to the cancellation of the full production of “6 Guns” at the BlueBarn just weeks before its premiere, she moved forward with venues in Des Moines and Kansas City. The Tiffany Johnson-directed co production between the Des Moines Playhouse and Pyramid Theatre, which opened on Juneteenth last year, is the same team that will be bringing the show to Omaha this month.

“I’m really eager to give it back to the people who supported the show from the beginning and let them know that it may have been three years, but their contribution is the only reason we’re here now,” Berry said.

Here, “6 Guns” is a co-production with Benson Theatre and the BlueBarn that can again be seen on Juneteenth in what Berry hopes will be a unique experience for all audiences.

“So many times we hear these tropes,” she said, “and, and it’s really, it’s re-traumatizing for Black audiences. And I don’t want to live in that space, I want to live in a place where we’re watching people overcome their challenges every single day, and they wake up and they choose life. They choose to be better. They’re choosing to walk into their purpose.”

Despite the trauma that history passes down through generations, Berry is adamant that there are ways forward, and that art can be a step in this direction; art can be the confrontation, the exorcism, and the absolution. But, perhaps most revolutionary, it can also be fun.

“Nothing’s going to stop me from achieving my greatness,” Berry said with a smile.

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