By Darlene Donloe
Plays can entertain. They can be thought provoking. They can be funny. They can be dramatic. They can effectively tell a story. They can shock! They can be emotional. They can expose ugly truths. They can present a viewpoint. They can give hope. They can instill pride.
All of those elements describe FLY, a play by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan that tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Army Air Corp fighters to fly over the skies in Europe and North Africa during World War II.
In honor of Black History Month, the play is currently enjoying its premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse and will play through February 21, 2016.
Inspired by the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, FLY highlights the behind the scenes drama that played out for Negroes who dared to think they were smart enough and accomplished enough to fly. It reveals how Negroes were willing to fight for a country that had no desire to give them equal rights or treat them like men.
Doubts about each other’s abilities were balanced against the bigotry of the white officers who were certain all of the Negro candidates would wash out of flight school. Undeterred, the men understood that many would washout and others would die in combat. But they pressed on!
The cast of FLY
The characters in the play represent various types of men. The noble bunch includes Brooks Brantly (W.W.), a charming ladies man whose desire to fly is for the sole purpose of impressing more women. Damian Thompson plays J. Allen, a determined, no-nonsense type from the West Indies. Terrell Wheeler (Oscar) wants to fly because “they” don’t think he can. Desmond Newson (Chet) plays a teenager who, at 17, lied about his age, but happens to already have his single-engine pilot’s license.
With all they had going against them at that time, FLY shows the determination, commitment and pride the Negro airmen had in themselves and their race.
The show opens up on January 20, 2009, on the U.S. Capitol steps in Washington, D.C., as several Tuskegee Airmen witness the inauguration of Barack Obama as the president of the U.S. It then goes back in time to 1943 in Tuskegee, Alabama and later Ramitelli Air Base in Southern Italy.
Trey Ellis, whose screen credits include the Peabody-winning and Emmy-nominated HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen, has, once again, written a poignant story that is elegantly and eloquently directed by Ricardo Khan, Tony Award-winning co-founder and former artistic director of Crossroads Theatre Company.
The story of how the Tuskegee Airmen broke racial barriers in the U.S. military is told against Beowulf Boritt’s extraordinary set, which complements Clint Allen’s video/projection design, John Gromada’s sound, Rui Rita’s lights and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes.
That coupled with visuals of clouds and even an air fight hanging overhead while actors sitting in chairs made the audience believe they were in cockpits as they mimicked the plane’s twists and turns, wonderfully brought the show to life. Although they were done with smoke and mirrors, the high-energy battle scenes were heart-pounding and hard to watch.
The Tap Griot - Omar Edwards
But what brought the 90-minute, one-act show home and added an extra emotional dimension was the introduction of The Tap Griot, namely Omar Edwards’ lively, emotive, brilliant and gut-wrenching tap dancing. Happiness, anger, resentment, confusion, grief, determination, tolerance, intolerance, anguish! Whatever part of the story that wasn’t told through dialogue or visuals, was powerfully conveyed and lifted through Edwards’ melodic and inspirational tap.
Khan, whose smart direction forwards the story, has assembled an exceptional cast and crew. All of the actors deliver impassioned performances! Under Khan’s helm the uplifting story of the Tuskegee Airmen has taken flight!
FLY, directed by Ricardo Khan, Tony Award-winning co-founder and former artistic director of Crossroads Theatre; written by Trey Ellis and choreographed by Hope Clarke, stars Brooks Brantly, Ross Cowan, Omar Edwards, Anthony J. Goes, Brandon Nagle, Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson and Terrell Wheeler.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), FLY gets an E (excellent).
FLY, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino, Pasadena, Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 and 8 p.m., Sun. 2 and 7 p.m., through Feb. 21; $25-$77; For information: 626 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Photo: Jim Cox Photography