In May of 1804, 33 men set out from Illinois to explore and map the western United States under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark.
For nearly two years the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled westward to the Pacific Ocean in search of a practical route across the continent. The troop surveyed the land, crossed perilous territories and met and traded with Native American tribes.
Among this Corps of Discovery was a man who was highly skilled at scouting, hunting and field medicine. He rescued Clark from a flash flood of the Missouri River and saved Lewis from a grizzly bear attack. He also played a key diplomatic role with the Native Americans due to his dark skin color. This man was Clark’s slave, York.
Playwright Bryan Harnetiaux created the piece, collaborating with the actor and musician David Casteal, who plays the title role of York. Harnetiaux said the play is meant to show a different side of history.
“We wanted to tell the story in the kind of Howard Zinn tradition; not by the victor, but by the vanquished,” he said. “What if York wasn't illiterate? What if York was able to tell his story?”
Harnetiaux, playwright-in-residence at the Spokane Civic Theatre in Washington, was asked to write a play about the Lewis and Clark journey for the 2005 bicentennial celebration. After weeks of researching, he could not hone in on a story and eventually he turned down the commission.
A few weeks later, inspiration struck. Harnetiaux said he woke up in the morning and saw a vision of York standing at the end of the bed. Then he saw Casteal standing next to York -- and he knew he needed to write a play about York starring Casteal.
He had worked with Casteal before in his play “National Pastime” about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. The two set out to bring York to life on stage. Harnetiaux worked to craft the story while Casteal scored the djembe drumming rhythm heard throughout the play.
Even though York had the same responsibilities as the rest of the expedition, very little is mentioned of him. York may have been the first Black man to have crossed the continent north of Mexico.
When the crew returned from their journey, every member except for York received money and land for their service. The historical record is unclear if York received his freedom from Clark.
Casteal said he was saddened that York’s contributions have been ignored.
“I think it speaks directly to slavery and how our slaves were treated and how they were looked at as essentially almost non-humans,” Casteal said.
Carrying the one-man play, Casteal says he is constantly moving and working. He plays York and voices the other expedition members as they interact with him. He is exhausted by the end of each performance but said playing York is rewarding work.
“I get to help tell this story or what might have been had somebody cared to listen,” he said.
York’s position as a slave contrasts with his place among Native American tribes, where he was a person of great interest. His skin color intrigued the indigenous people and he was treated with curiosity. Harnetiaux said York was considered a “Black Indian” by the Nez Perce tribe.
Stephen Reichard, executive director of the ReBuilding Center, saw the original York play in Spokane in 2006 and was mesmerized by the performance. Two years later, he moved to Portland to become the chief operating officer of Planned Parenthood of the Columbia Willamette.
When Planned Parenthood moved its headquarters to Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, it became the focus of community tension about abortion and reproductive services for African Americans. Reichard wanted to present the play in Portland as part of community outreach, but the idea fell apart.
When he began work with The ReBuilding Center, he rekindled the idea of hosting York. He called Harnetiaux to revive the play and was surprised to hear that Harnetiaux and Casteal were already planning a revival.
Reichard said it was serendipity to finally be able to show the play in Portland. He said he hasn’t been able to forget about York since he saw it nearly a decade ago.
“I've had the bug for 10 years; it’s been a passion of mine to bring it to Portland,” Reichard said.
For more information, check out the ReBuilding Center’s page on York.