By Darlene Donloe
Joan Williams, the widow of Tuskegee Airman Robert Williams, whose story was brought to life in the HBO film, The Tuskegee Airmen, is sitting inside the Pasadena Playhouse watching rehearsals for FLY, a play about the legendary pilots, set to open at the theater this Sunday (Jan. 31).
The Pasadena Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre Company’s production of the West Coast premiere of FLY, by Trey Ellis and Tony Award-winner Ricardo Khan, dramatizes the historic contributions made by the Tuskegee Airmen to the desegregation of the American military and the furthering of civil rights. It tells the story of the Negro military pilots who flew over Europe and North Africa during World War II and how they demonstrated a strength and enduring spirit that was unmatched. They proved to America that courage knows no color. Not only did they save lives, they helped win the war, earning the Tuskegee Airmen a certain level of respect.
A cancer survivor who recently finished six chemo treatments, Williams, 83, knows the story all too well. A petite, well-dressed and well coiffed woman with a quick wit and a passion for that part of history, she has some stories of her own she can share regarding that volatile time in America. She smiles that smile of pride as she talks about the accomplishments her husband made, as well as the heartaches he endured fighting for a country that lacked appreciation.
But Williams, too, had to fight racism. In 1958 when she was 27, Williams was selected as “Miss Crown City” and was supposed to ride on the city-sponsored Rose Parade float. However, when Pasadena city officials realized she was black, the city decided they couldn’t afford to sponsor a float that year. Last year, Williams received an apology from the city of Pasadena and got to ride on a float in the parade some 58 years later.
I interviewed Joan Williams (JW) about FLY, her husband, whom she married in 1952, their life and her memories. She’s nattily dressed in brown boots, black pants, a black top, a chic brown and black scarf, gold earrings and gold necklace. Her memory is sharp and her resolve unwavering.
DD: Why should people care about this story?
JW: It’s important to keep the story moving forward. This is American history, not Black history.
DD: Your husband’s story was told in an HBO film about the Tuskegee Airmen.
JW: Yes, two weeks after he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, HBO called and said they wanted to do it. It energized him. He lived five more years. He was diagnosed in 1992 and when the movie came out, he was able to enjoy doing some PR (public relations). He died in 1997.
DD: He must have been so proud.
JW: He was fulfilled. It was a dream. He grew up in Iowa. He and his father and brother owned a plane. He knew how to fly. He enlisted with his friend who was Caucasian.
DD: I’m sure they had different experiences when they enlisted.
JW: The guy sitting behind the desk said, ‘Uncle Sam wants you, but Uncle Sam doesn’t want any niggers.’ He let it roll off his shoulders. He went on and did what he wanted to do.
DD: He must have shared some juicy stories with you.
JW: Yes, he did. On the train to Alabama to report for duty they made them get off the train and gave their seats to German prisoners of war. And then the black fellas had to sit behind the caboose.
DD: He obviously didn’t let anything bother him.
JW: He would say, ‘Until the day I die, I will be trying to get this story out there to the public.’ He was well loved.
DD: The two of you have seen some things. What stands out for you?
JW: In 2008, I lived to see Barack Obama become president. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime. For that to happen was such a blessing. To see what’s happening in this country is mind-boggling. It’s sad. I want to emphasize to my grandchildren how they can’t give up. Get involved.
DD: Are you encouraged or discouraged about how black people have progressed in this country?
JW: I’m discouraged. I had no idea there was so much hatred in this country. Don’t know how I got blindsided by that. I’m a native Californian. Born in LA. I remember when we first tried to buy something in Leimert Park we couldn’t because we were Negroes.
DD: We’re talking about the Tuskegee Airmen, but you’ve also had to deal with discrimination. Last year the city of Pasadena apologized to you for an ugly incident in which the opportunity to ride in the Tournament of Roses parade was squelched due to your race. However, you recently got to ride in the Tournament of Roses Parade after being denied in 1958. Almost 60 years later – you get to ride.
JW: Yeah, back then it happened all of a sudden. The city of Pasadena didn’t have the room for me. They didn’t have a float that year. That’s not my problem.
DD: Given the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, is it more important for black people to see this or white people to see this?
JW: It’s important for everyone. It’s really important for white people to see it. Many whites don’t have interaction with black folks. The more they learn about us, it will help them grow. Many of them don’t read it in their history books. They aren’t taught about other cultures in school. We’re the same everywhere.
DD: Why is this story important?
JW: These young men, some were college educated by that time, they wouldn’t take ‘NO’ for an answer. They proved they had the intelligence to fly. All of that is helpful to young people to persevere and not give up.
DD: What was your husband like when he came home from the war?
JW: When my husband came home from being overseas, everything was fine until they moved toward the city and the city folks were getting on the bus. This person gets on the bus and says, ‘Conductor tell this boy where he’s supposed to be sitting.’ The driver asked them to move to the back of the bus. My husband would say, ‘If we as a people let this deter us we wouldn’t have accomplished what we have.’
DD: Your husband, Robert, sounds like a helluva guy. Describe him.
JW: Robert Williams was a wonderful husband and father, brother and family man. He had a wonderful personality. He met people everywhere, it didn’t matter who you were. He was interested in their stories. He was always telling stories about the Airmen.
The company of FLY with Dr. Roscoe Brown, Tuskegee Airman and Chief Technical Consultant for FLY.
(l-r top) Marshall Jones, III (executive director of Crossroads Theatre Company), Terrell Wheeler, Omar Edwards, Brooks Brantley, Kelli Smith (production stage manager), Ricardo Khan (director), Dr. Roscoe Brown, Brandon Nagle, Anthony J. Goes and Ross Cowan. Bottom row: (l-r) Sadae Marie, Desmond Newson and Damian Thompson.
Photo by The Pasadena Playhouse
FLY, directed by Tony Award-winner Ricardo Khan and choreographed by Hope Clarke, features Brooks Brantly, Ross Cowan, Omar Edwards, Anthony J. Goes, Brandon Nagle, Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson and Terrell Wheeler.
Eight original Tuskegee Airmen: Lt. Col Theodore Lumpkin, Jerry Hodges, Levi Thornhill, Wilbert (Bill) Johnson, Reginald Ballard, Dr. Isaac Walker, Harlan Leonard, Franklin Henderson (who served as a Buffalo Soldier), are expected to be in attendance at the opening Sunday night.
FLY, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA; January 31 through February 21, 2016; Tickets: 626-356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.