Friday, April 26, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Flyin' West"

The shelf-life of any play is at best uncertain, but it is no surprise that Atlanta based playwright Pearl Cleage's popular 1994 Flyin' West is marking its 25th Anniversary with several productions around the country, the latest of which opened Thursday night at The Cloverdale Playhouse; it was the country's "most produced play" shortly after its composition, and from the resounding reception it received this week, its staying power is secure.

Based on actual events during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, when thousands of former slaves fled the South to settle in Nicodemus, Kansas, Ms. Cleage's play is both a history lesson and an anthem to the stalwart women whose identity and strength of character reflect the Biblical Nicodemus as a model of their rebirth in casting off the bonds of slavery to secure their new-found freedom.

Flyin' West shows four Homesteading women who join forces in their attempts to overcome the social stigma of being both Black and female, with unseen whites buying up the land around them, and racial prejudices within their own family. -- Miss Leah [Georgette Norman] is a feisty matriarchal ex-slave who birthed 15 children who were all sold into slavery, and whose yarns both entertain and instruct. She is in company with three sisters: the eldest, Sophie [Kourtney Ellis] is a determined rifle-toting activist in the movement to keep her family's land secure; middle sister Fannie [Jamila Turner] tries her best to hold the family together despite inner strife, while being courted by the mild-mannered Will [La'Brandon Milbry-Tyer]; and on the arrival of pregnant youngest sister Minnie [Amy May], who makes excuses for her abusively loathsome mulatto husband Frank [Clyde Hancock], family conflicts intertwine with the challenges of surviving in the 1898 Kansas plains.

Mike Winkelman designed a minimalist multi-leveled set surrounded by a painted panorama of the Great Plains that evokes the endless possibilities awaiting a people eager to fulfill the American Dream of "freedom, equality, and opportunity" to be secured through land ownership.

Directed by local actress and director Sarah Adkins, Flyin' West takes on a profound significance for contemporary audiences. Ms. Adkins offers a slow and deliberate pace to target Ms. Cleage's themes with humor and poignancy, and effortlessly skewers the danger and hypocrisy of racist ideas and behavior both within and without the African American community.

The ensemble actors grapple with these themes in consistently nuanced performances that delineate their roles without resorting to stereotype. And there are moments that rivet audience attention because of the actors' credible connections to one another, their respect for Ms. Cleage's words and the powerful ideas they communicate about self-determination, human dignity against the odds, and even some wicked fun at resolving their problems.