Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ASF: "Fly"

The heroic World War II African American P-51 Mustang pilots known as the "Tuskegee Airmen" are legendary. Their story Fly is having its Alabama debut at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where a packed opening night audience rose to their feet and cheered at the conclusion of the 90-minute production.

The script by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan [Mr. Khan is also the play's director] celebrates their victorious combat record; yet, there is an equal focus on their tenacity in overcoming racial prejudice in a white America that believed that African Americans were both their genetic and social inferiors. 

This is a story that needs to be told in 2018 [much like the recent film Hidden Figures] as we too often see the very fabric of America fractured by xenophobic tirades against immigrants, minorities, and anyone perceived as "other". -- Had it not been for Eleanor Roosevelt's highly publicized 1941 flight with one of the Airmen, and her subsequent encouraging of her husband FDR to do something for them, it is likely that the "Tuskegee Airmen's" abilities might have gone unrecognized and their participation in the war might never have happened.

The play opens on Beowulf Borrit's minimalist set flanked by screens that almost continually project archival film and still photographs that support the narrative. In a powerfully theatrical opening moment, the Tap Griot [Omar Edwards] embodies the pain and anger of African Americans through tap dancing. Reaching back into the heritage of West Africa where griots were regarded as the keepers of history, the authors have created this character to tell their past, show their sublimated fury, and support their empowerment. Mr. Edwards rarely speaks, but he is always present to observe and comment on the action, communicating so much in an electrifying tour de force performance.

Bookended with scenes at President Obama's inauguration where the Tuskegee Airmen were honored, and narrated by Chet Simpkins [Clinton Roane], we are introduced to a rag-tag set of recruits from various backgrounds, each with a personal agenda that at first interferes with their becoming a combat-ready unit, but who ultimately learn to work together as a team.

With a lot of macho posturing, these men all compete in attempting to be number one: Oscar [James Holloway] has a wife and baby on the way; J. Allen [Edwin Brown III] is of West Indian heritage and doesn't completely understand the others' motives; W. W. [Robert Karma Robinson] is a zoot-suit wearing Chicagoan who feels superior to the others; and the aforementioned Simpkins, the youngest [indeed underaged] recruit from New York with a lot to prove -- to himself above all.

They are pitted against Captain O'Hurley [Christopher Kann], a no-nonsense officer charged with their training, a task he hates at least in part because he considers all his recruits to be incapable of learning how to be combat pilots simply because they are Black. When they do succeed, he reluctantly awards their commissions, and is abetted by Bomber Pilot Reynolds [Casey Predovic] and Bomber Co-Pilot Shaw [Drew Ledbetter], who discover in a cleverly drawn out and humorous scene, that the Black men they denigrated turn out to be both their military equals who save their lives as well as their best comrades.

These is not a single weak link in this tight ensemble of actors, whose efforts combine to not only tell a compelling historical story, but whose truthful characterizations help audiences invest in them as real people.