Dallas — When theater veterans Trey Ellis and Ricardo Kahn put heads together for a play about the fierce courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black unit of fighter pilots in World War II, you’d have to wonder how—and how quickly—they came up with the idea of telling the story with a hefty dose of tap dance.
Sometimes a great notion must look like foolishness at the start, but this one works: African American Repertory Theater’s regional premiere of Fly takes off and soars on the playwrights’ offbeat blend of historical drama and dance. Director Willie Minor and his team have an unusual piece here—and they make the most of it in a production marked by sharp performances and high energy. AART has been missing from the scene for about a year, having lost several spaces, and does this at Mountain View College in southwest Dallas.
And those flyboys can sing, too.
Ellis wrote the screenplay for the award-winning HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen—but in Fly, he and Kahn (co-founder of Tony-winning Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey) are trying for something different than a straight realistic account. Sarah Harris’ intriguingly un-real set design—angled screens, curving steps, the arrow-point center line of an airport runway—lets us be anywhere in the world or above it in an instant. And her work is enlivened by Prudence Jones’ lighting, especially in air combat scenes, and by Bear Hamilton’s evocative sound picks.
The airmen’s story is told accurately and well, but in fast-moving scenes and short bursts of dialogue. It’s a lively and lean script: in seconds, it seems, we know a lot about four young black cadets who’ve come together in Alabama for flight training and, as one says, “to do something for our people.” And their stories are accompanied by a Tap Griot (danced by the mesmerizing Sean J. Smith), whose name harks back to the traditional African tale-tellers.
The black-clad Griot provides a literal soundtrack at times, mimicking the chug of a train or the rev of a plane engine. But more often, Smith’s dancing punctuates a moment, leads us to the next scene, or gives us a deeper sense of the experiences and emotions of the characters. In one scene, the Griot leads the quartet of cadets in a circling, arms-out celebration of the sheer joy of flying. He is the sound of their marching, their battles, their fears and their triumphs. He is the sound of the anger they conceal to do the job. Being an ace in the sky doesn’t mean you’ll get in the door of a “Whites Only” officer’s club—or that your family at home is being treated with respect.
A compelling all-male cast creates vivid portraits of the black cadets and the white officers who lead them, sometimes unwillingly. Darren McElroy is J. Allen, an airman of West Indies heritage who wants to make his father proud. Daniel Saunders is Oscar, a tall kid from Iowa with a baby girl he’s never seen. Telvin Griffin plays W.W., a guy from Chicago who’s heading for Hollywood after the war—to be, as Oscar teases him, the movies’ “dark Gable.” And Vandous E. Stripling II is Chet, a sweet boy the others call “1-2-5” for the famous street in Harlem where he grew up.
Each of the four create quickly drawn but memorable sketches of bright young men—college guys from Howard and Morehouse, some of them—who put lives and futures on the line. And they all have their reasons. I’m doing it, says Oscar, “because they say I can’t.” And when the airmen march and sing in military cadence (step choreography by Rhonda Jones), it’s something to see and hear. Fly never stops moving.
We see Chet, the youngest of the four, as an old man with an honored place “on the Capitol steps” at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. History is a river, Chet tells us—a river whose flow he felt when he joined the Tuskegee Airmen and now, watching the nation’s first African-American president take the oath of office.
C.B. Rice’s video projections, on four panels around and above the action, give us that sense of history: runaway slave “ads,” WWII footage, wild-blue-yonder cloudscapes, civil rights marches, Obama’s election. We are surrounded and immersed, folded into the airmen’s story and the American history we share. And Regina Washington’s vintage-look military uniforms and flight suits add to our rich sense of the past.
Bill Jenkins is a growling, dismissive O’Hurley, the cadets’ commanding officer, who thinks the idea of blacks in the military, especially in the air, is a danger to the country. He calls every cadet “George” (it’s the non-name whites gave to all black porters on tycoon George Pullman’s train cars) and will try to “wash out” every one of them. Two white bomber pilots figure in the story as well. Michael Brannian is Shaw, a southern-born co-pilot unhappy to have the Tuskegee Airmen providing fighter escort on a mission over Germany. And Garrett McPherson plays Reynolds, the bomber pilot. Both actors, who do well with some hard-to-take material, are there to represent degrees of white racism and opposition. But these aren’t one-note roles: Ellis and Kahn give these all-too-typical guys a chance to learn and change.
The drama/dance pairing in Fly works because the story and the dance style aren’t a random mashup. They are already connected—joined at the heart, really—by history. The play chronicles a story of African-American men who were determined and brave at a critical time: for themselves, for their communities, for their country. It’s a story of grand achievement—and so, in a unique way, is tap dancing, an art that rose from the African-American community and comes with its own history of determination and achievement and pride.
AART’s fine production—here’s wishing they think about taking it to colleges and high schools around the area—is a real gift at this flag-waving time of year, a reminder that our history is more complicated, difficult, and grand than we sometimes know.
Fly closes July 1. Catch it if you can.