This weekend is your last chance to see the entertaining and touching “Fly” at the Pasadena Playhouse. The play incorporates tap dance and a bit of steppin’ to tell the story of the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen through flashbacks of one man who survived long enough to witness an event that serves as validation of the sacrifices they made.
Beginning in Washington, D.C. in 2009, an old man, Chet (Desmond Newson), flashes back to when he traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama in the summer of 1943. The scene switches are signal by images projected on to give irregularly shaped quadrangles. The props are otherwise kept to a minimum: chairs and footlockers. Much of the tempo and cadence is supplied by a tap griot (Omar Edwards). A griot is part of a West African tradition and was a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain oral traditions. The tap griot is particularly effective in establishing a military cadence.
Written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, the story focuses on four men (Newson, Brooks Brantly, Terrell Wheeler and Damian Thompson) as they meet: a Chicago stylish guy in a zoot suit, a man from the West Indies, a too-young-to-be enlisted boy and a married man with a baby on the way who’s doing this to promote his race. Not all of the men will survive the training or the war. They were making history, but “history is the river we stand in knee deep” and we don’t know where its taking us even when one is “a walking NAACP nightmare.”
They won’t change so much as they will make people change their minds. The emotional journey here is in what they proved to their instructors and to the bigoted Americans. (The French had no qualms against allowing blacks to become pilots). The men were predominately black college graduates and undergraduates. According to the program notes, between 1941 and 1946, 994 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee program and from 1943 to 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen flew over 15,000 combat missions in Europe and earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars. In 2007, they received the Congressional Medal of Honor, most of them posthumously.
Ellis and Khan’s script reminds us that this was a time when Jesse Owens and Joe Louis were athletic heroes, but there were still colored entrances and water fountains in the Deep South and these men are not all from the South, but they were training in Tuskegee, Alabama. And, of course, then there’s the music of the day, including the song that gave the men their motto, Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” That song alone should make this play worth seeing during the Year of the Monkey. As a director Khan gives us an emotional ride, but doesn’t allow it to sink into maudlin sentimentality. We can be pretty sure that this is at least half of the original vision of the playwrights.
“Fly” ends on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. For more information call (626) 356-7529 or visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org.