Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pearl Cleage's Drama, 'Flyin West,' Set For ICT

A contemporary classic about the strength of black women
and their role as pioneers in the settlement of the American West

LONG BEACH, Calif. (Feb. 18, 2014) Four African-American women journey west to the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas in search of the freedom promised by the end of the Civil War. Saundra McClain directs Pearl Cleage's powerful historical drama Flyin West, opening March 14 at International City Theatre in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Two low-priced previews take place on March 12 and March 13.

The Homestead Act of 1860 offered 320 acres of free land to U.S. citizens willing to settle in the western states. Based in part on actual journal entries, Flyin' West highlights the struggles of black homesteaders who, following the advice of charismatic leader Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, took advantage of the Act to flee the racism and oppression of the South. Cleage gives us a glimpse of the tribulations faced by freed slaves even after the abolition of slavery, and of the quarter of a million unmarried or widowed black women who moved west to escape a white male-dominated world.

"The play is a work of fiction, but Nicodemus is a real place and the story is inspired by historical fact," says McClain. "These settlers were running away from the lawlessness and the lynchings of Jim Crow. Back in the cities, they were starting to lose some of the freedoms they had grown accustomed to during Reconstruction. Many didn't realize until they got to Kansas just how rough it was going to be. It had been painted as the promised land by Pap Singleton. They were seeking a black Utopia."

Flyin West's ensemble cast includes Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel (Requiem for the American Dream: The Best of the Second City) as Sophie Washington, determined to protect her land and those she loves at any cost. Leilani Smith (People are f%@$&#ing Ridiculous at Two Roads Theatre) portrays Sophie's gentle sister, Fannie Mae Dove, who tries to civilize the frontier with fine china, roses and her love for soft-spoken neighbor Wil Parish, played by Boise Holmes (Chicago premiere of The Fall of Heaven, Mufasa in the German production of Disney's The Lion King). Aisha D. Benton (The Girls of Summer at the Whitmore Lindley) is Minnie Dove Charles, the youngest sister who returns from abroad for a visit. As Minnie's husband, the nefarious Frank, Dylan Mooney (soon to be released Stand Down Soldier with Harry Lennix) tests the sisters' relationship in unexpected ways. And Robin Braxton (Havin Our Say at ICT, Intimate Apparel at Mark Taper Forum) is Miss Leah, the old woman whose memories of slavery and its aftermath comprise a living oral history.

Flyin West was commissioned in 1992 by the Alliance Theatre Company and was produced with the support of AT&T and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Resident Theatre Initiative. "The most potent, gripping play…a paean to women…and a plea for all women with vibrant lives to tell their oral stories," wrote the The New York Times of the New York premiere in 1993. Flyin West went on to become the country's most-produced play in 1994, and ICT presented the Los Angeles premiere in 1997, directed by then-artistic director Shashin Desai.

It's been seventeen years, and at that time ICT was a 99-seat black box theater," says ICT artistic director caryn desai [sic]. "Now, as an Equity company in residence at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, we're able to reach so many more people with this fascinating drama about a little-known chapter in American history. It's a production I strongly feel deserves a revival."

Saundra McClain returns to ICT where she previously directed Ain't Misbehavin'. Most recently, she directed the Colony Theatre's critically acclaimed production Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes, and she’ll direct the West Coast premiere of Pearl Cleage's What I Learned in Paris this August. Saundra received rave reviews for her direction of Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune, The Fantasticks and In the Continuum at Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara. Her production of Ain't MisBehavin' at Bridgeports Playhouse on the Green won the Connecticut Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Ensemble, and she was asked to restage it for Two River Theater Company (NJ), where she also directed Spunk. As adjunct professor at Queens College, she directed Sophocles' Electra and also created and taught the Black Theater Workshop. She has directed Death of a Salesman; Antigone; To Be Young, Gifted and Black; and The Women of the Plums (Kennedy Center's Youth and Family Programs), Dark of the Moon; Hello Out There; Don't See My Bones and Think I'm Dead (Henry Street Settlement), A Modest Proposal (UBU Rep), Harriet's Return, a one woman show, and Of Ebony Embers Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance, a one man show with chamber orchestra (Cherry Lane Theatre), both of which toured nationally for five years. Ms. McClain was artistic director of TROUPE NY, which adapted classic works for the schools and developed new works with emerging playwrights and directors. She is a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, an ensemble member of The Antaeus Company, and Artist-in-Residence at Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara where she will direct Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune later this season.

Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based playwright and novelist. Her other plays include The Nacirema Society, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Bourbon at the Border, A Song for Coretta and What I Learned in Paris. She has written eight novels, including "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day," which was an Oprah Book Club selection and spent nine weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Pearl and her husband, writer Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., collaborated on the award-winning performance series Live at Club Zebra! for 10 years. In 1973, Pearl was a speechwriter for the Maynard Jackson campaign and later served as his first press secretary. She is currently Playwright-in-Residence at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

Set design for Flyin West is by JR Bruce; lighting design is by Donna Ruzika; costume design is by Kim DeShazo; sound design is by Dave Mickey; props are by Patty and Gordon Briles; wigs are by Anthony Gagliardi; production stage manager is Pat Loeb; and casting is by Michael Donovan Casting.

Flyin West  runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., March 14 through April 6. Two preview performances take place on Wednesday, March 12 and Thursday, March 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $42 on Thursdays and $47 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, except opening night (March 14) for which tickets are $52 and includes a post-performance reception with the actors.

International City Theatre is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach, CA 90802. For reservations and information, call the ICT Box Office at 562-436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org.

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