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Theater review: Uplifting story of the Tuskegee Airmen
By LUCIA ANDERSON
For THE FREE LANCE–STAR
So the German prisoners of war could sit downstairs in the movie theater, but the black airmen, wearing their country’s uniform, had to sit in the balcony?
I was outraged when I learned this during a recent visit to the Colleton Museum in Walterboro, S.C. The famed Tuskegee Airmen had received advanced combat training at the nearby Walterboro Army Air Field during World War II, and the museum has a fairly extensive exhibit about them.
I guess this white Yankee is still pretty naïve about the depth of racial injustice in this country.
Those men had to claw their way into flight training in the first place and were subjected to much stricter tests than their white counterparts before they got their wings. That they proved their excellence is now part of history.
Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan have built “Fly” on the experiences of those pioneering black aviators. The subject makes for good theater.
In some ways the play adheres to standard combat drama rules—four guys from different backgrounds come together, bond during hardship and go out to complete their mission. But these guys aren’t just fighting the Germans; they’re fighting their own countrymen for respect.
As a training officer says to one of the men who fails the program, “This isn’t ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ There are no flying monkeys.”
In a vivid emphasis, the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards) expresses the cadets’ collective rage and frustration with his flying feet.
The four men bring different points of view to the endeavor. Chet Simpkins (Christopher Wilson) comes from Harlem. He’s the youngest of the group, without the others’ college education, but he’s also the only one who’s already a licensed pilot.
W.W. (Eric Berryman) is a slick Chicago player who is looking for pilot’s wings to impress women.
Oscar (Mark Hairston) is all about race. “Anything for my people,” he says, more than once. He’s the requisite Midwest farmboy.
J. Allen (Damian Thompson) is from the West Indies, Jamaica by his accent. He is a surrogate for his father, who is fascinated by airplanes.
More than half of the play’s 90 minutes focus on the men’s training. With no more than eight standard government metal chairs and four footlockers to set the stage, the men fight, study and fly—chairs tilted back as they climb into the air, bodies weaving as they dip and turn, bent forward as they come back to earth.
Hope Clarke is listed as choreographer for the play. I’m assuming that she designed the men’s balletic movements during flight as well as the actual dance steps that pop up here and there. She did a great job.
Adding to the effect are Clint Allen’s projection designs lighting seven screens around the stage with swirling clouds, distant farmland far below, the red glare of airplanes hit by gunfire.
The men—most of them—do get to Europe, where their P–51 Mustangs protect the lumbering bombers from Luftwaffe fighters. Khan and Ellis make the point that the bomber pilots felt safer with the Tuskegee Airmen, requesting their escort over others. The bombers called them the Red-Tail Angels because of the red paint on their airplane’s tails.
The playwrights make note of some of the recognition given the courage and heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, starting the play with the 2007 gathering on the steps of the Capitol where the group received the Congressional Gold Medal. It ends with Simpkins as an honored guest at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Ford’s Theatre is offering “Fly” as part of its Lincoln Legacy Project, designed to promote dialogue about tolerance and equality. The play certainly illustrates a major step forward in civil rights.
Where: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, Washington
When: Through Oct. 21
Lucia Anderson is a writer in Woodbridge.