How can we know who we are if we don’t know the truth about those who came before us?
When Dennis McAuliffe Jr. published The Deaths of Sybil Bolton in 1994, the story of the murders of wealthy Osages in and around Pawhuska in the 1920s was largely unknown. It was certainly a mystery to McAuliffe, a Washington Post journalist who’d set out to investigate a conundrum in his own family: How did his grandmother, Sybil Bolton, really die? Kidney failure or a gunshot wound? Suicide or murder? He ended up unearthing a personal piece of American history that’s now coming into national consciousness thanks to new tellings and retellings, notably David Grann’s 2017 Killers of the Flower Moon (soon to be adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese).
Playwright, director and Rogers State University professor David Blakely first talked with McAuliffe a decade ago about adapting his book into a play, and the idea came back to mind when Blakely became playwright-in-residence at Heller Theatre Company, a post he held until a few months ago. Expanded from his 2017 TATE Award-winning one-act Heller play "Four Ways to Die" (which McAuliffe and Grann both attended), the full-length work premieres Nov. 1 as The Deaths of Sybil Bolton.
"Blakely saw what no one else saw: that this story and the Osage Reign of Terror are meant for the stage," McAuliffe said.
The play, which features eight actors (three of them Native) and a minimal set, doesn’t flinch from the theatrical challenge of portraying a history that layers facts and fictions like transparencies, some obscured and nearly wrecked by time. "Movies don’t do well going back and forth across generations," McAuliffe said. "But on stage—I’ve learned thanks to Blakely—you can talk to people who’ve been dead for 60 years without being all M. Night Shyamalan."
"The audience’s imagination is the special effect," Blakely explained. "This story was written in 1994 and has since been updated, but it really starts back with Thomas Jefferson. So chronological order is not the way to tell it. The way is to bump into something and find out what it means, then bump into something else. We’re bringing the audience along on what is basically a detective story."
The Deaths of Sybil Bolton tackles lies, thefts and erasures with both a micro and a macro lens. The main character Denny’s attempt to understand himself (Denny—a nickname for McAuliffe—is a hard-drinking Irish-American who’d only recently learned he was part Osage) overlaps with a search for the truth about what happened in his family and those of the five dozen Osages killed for their land rights and inheritances. ("I look at playing Denny as really a member of the audience, since we are all learning as we go," said actor Steve Barker, who also played the lead in the one-act version to the acclaim of McAuliffe and his family.)
"Where you see genius at work in Blakely’s writing is his explanation of Osage headrights and how that byzantine system of inheriting fractions of headrights—plus some crucial loopholes—all led to the murders," McAuliffe said. "Only Osages fully understood how it worked. The killers also figured it out, and hid behind the details. David makes it so visually understandable, I predict it will get ‘borrowed’ for the Scorsese movie."
In his research and writing, Blakely "was adamant about being true to the story and the people," McAuliffe said.
"This story is an Osage story and it’s for Osages," Blakely said. "But it is a story that needs to be told to white people. The shame that keeps his mother from telling stories about her Osage heritage is the same shame that white boys like me, or rather, not like me, continue to perpetuate—history being ‘our story’ in which we are the heroes.
"At the beginning of the play, it says history is a house made of stories. At the beginning, Denny’s house is a story that’s full of lies. He’s trying to tell the story so we live in a house that’s full of truth. I live in that house too.
"A playwright builds stories the same way an architect builds a building," he continued. "This is a piece that starts as a thing in your brain and it ends up as a thing in your heart. My job is to bring all the strands together and convey them to the audience in a theatrical and emotional way, though it’s obviously a piece you’re supposed to think about.
"But it’s a piece where, when you think about it, you become outraged. I don’t know how we rally around it. But it’s our job to get the stories out there and help people walk in the world."
McAuliffe agreed. "There’s an old saying in journalism: great stories bear repeating," he said. "The door is open—thanks to this play, and Grann’s book, and the upcoming movie—for more Osages to tell their Reign of Terror stories.
"I hope they do. Every family has a story. We need to hear them."
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The Deaths of Sybil Bolton
Heller Theatre Company
November 1, 2, 8, 9 at 7:30 p.m.
November 9, 10 at 2 p.m.
Lynn Riggs Theater at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, 621 E. 4th St.