nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
October 9, 2009
Fly, a new play about the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, is currently playing at Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey. If you have an opportunity to go see it please do so right away; sadly the show only runs until the 17th of October.
The famed Tuskegee Airmen came from all across the United States yet they are so named because they trained and earned their pilots' wings at the Tuskegee Army Air Field (the Tuskegee Institute is now a national historic site) in Alabama.
The outstanding record of black airmen in World War II was accomplished by men whose names would live forever in hallowed memory. Each one accepted the challenge, proudly displayed his skill and determination while suppressing internal rage from humiliation and indignation caused by frequent experiences of racism and bigotry, at home and overseas. These airmen fought two wars—one against a military force overseas and the other against racism at home and abroad. [from www.tuskegeeairmen.org]
In all, 994 African American pilots received their silver wings by 1946 and 450 of them served and flew missions overseas.
In Fly, Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis as authors create an amalgam from the history of these men, giving us four trainee pilots: Chet, called 125 because he was from 125th Street in Harlem; W.W., also called Chicago; Oscar, also called Iowa; and J. Allen, called Coconut because he hails from the Caribbean. Their journeys are theatrically brought to life using a plot-driven storyline that incorporates, movement, poetry, dance, audio-visuals, and a fascinating character called the Tap Griot. In the dictionary "Griot" is defined as "a member of a caste of professional oral historians in the Mali Empire." Keepers of history, if you will, who continue their oral traditions in Western Africa to this day.
Chet, winningly portrayed by Charlie Hudson III, also acts as a narrator, opening the play as an older man answering questions about his youthful experiences in the war pursuing his dreams of flight before the age he is legally allowed to do so. The story quickly flashes back to everyone's first days in Tuskegee and their powerful dreams of taking to the air. As W.W.—called by his friends from Chicago "W.W.W." or "what women want"—Turron Kofi Alleyne is convincing as a cocky ladies' man whose hard sarcastic exterior belies a sensitive soul. Yaegel Welch plays the super-intelligent J. Allen with humor and pathos. Oscar, the fourth trainee, is described by the other airmen as a "Race Man" whose presence in Tuskegee is for his people. His steely determination and noble ideals are perfectly brought to life by Royce Johnson.
Jeremiah Wiggins and Adam Greer are extremely successful in their portrayals of superior officers, instructors, and multiple other characters. The cast is rounded out by the talented Omar Edwards who gives us the wonderfully interesting Tap Griot. Edwards has a physical demeanor and visual look that is decidedly contemporary but because of the dance he is at the same time deeply rooted in history. He is at one time the physical embodiment of the airmen's inner unexpressed emotions and at other moments he takes on the persona of a barman and other individuals encountered by the four airmen. As a theatrical device the possibilities and power of the character are limitless—if anything in this production he is underutilized.
The play is cleverly directed by Crossroads' artistic director Ricardo Kahn using only four trunks and four chairs to create any number of stunning visual images. Supported by Brant Thomas Murray's lighting and Sarah Lambert's scenic design, the mission flight sequences are absolutely glorious in their theatrical creativity. Some of the most vivid moments in the evening are wordless and thanks in part to drill choreography by Hope Clarke and precision flight consulting by Dr. Roscoe C. Brown also riveting.
There were here and there a few moments that were muddled and lacking in clarity and without even a character listing or dramaturgical notes in the program no recourse to better understanding. In addition, some of the more revelatory moments felt a bit "forced" and were not organically supported by the text. But as a world premiere, further development of this script might be in its future. In fact, at only 90 minutes without intermission we are definitely left wanting to know more about this important story and to stand with these characters "knee deep in the river of history" for a just while longer.