Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
The Freedom to “Fly” – Tuskegee Airmen celebrated, as only stagecraft can, in Pasadena
One of the great, and completely non-transferable, pleasures of live theater comes from an audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Whereas most other media demand absolute realism – real walls, real planes, real surroundings of any kind – in the theater (to paraphrase Shakespeare) when actors speak of their surroundings, the audience sees them. This can lead to a specific kind of emotional power, and a fluidity of storytelling, the kind of storytelling amply demonstrated in “Fly” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“Fly,” by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, tells in small the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the unit of African-American fighter pilots trained at Tuskegee University and sent to Europe to protect US bombers flying over occupied Europe. The 332nd Fighter Group, known commonly as the Red Tails, established an extraordinary record for bravery and excellence, and broke down significant racial barriers between themselves and the white bomber pilots during the heat of battle. Yet, even getting to that place was a matter of a larger battle, overcoming the skepticism of the white officers who would train and assign them here at home.
In “Fly,” this tale becomes visceral through a series of theatrical effects. Four fascinatingly individual characters are taken through their training and battle careers on a set made up of four chairs, four trunks, and a series of screens upon which their surroundings – including the skies through which they fly – are projected. It works, as we dive and weave with them through the clouds, or walk carefully with them through the dangers of a night off base in the deep South. Their sublimated emotions of anger, frustration and joy are given “voice” by an extraordinary dancer using tap as a vehicle for the emotions which could not be overtly expressed in their segregated world.
An impressively articulated ensemble makes the show work. Brooks Brantly creates the brash W.W., a man from the gangs of Chicago whose ladykiller persona hides a deep-seated drive to rise. Terrell Wheeler becomes Oscar, a man of great principal focused on the importance of this unit to the pride of his race. Damian Thompson creates J. Allen, a man from the Caribbean bringing a more British view to the stresses of training under white officers. Desmond Newsom focuses the story as Chet, the kid of the group – a boy whose fake ID and love of flying has allowed him to sneak into the program.
Speaking with his feet to their stresses and celebrations, the extraordinary Omar Edwards takes the art of tap into new dimensions. Providing the stressors upon these young recruits, the casual prejudices of Anthony J. Goes’ training officer underscore the innate prejudice of society at large and the military specifically during that period. As the pilot and co-pilot of the bomber our fighter pilots protect in Europe, Ross Cowan and Brandon Nagle emphasize the changes in attitude forged by battle, and combine with the Brantly and Newsom for the show’s funniest, and in many ways most telling moment: a pseudo-ceremony blown way out of proportion.
Under director-author Khan, such scenes become organic, as the play – which runs 90 minutes without intermission – remains compelling watching from start to end. Beginning and ending with modern day, and the final acknowledgement of the impressive feats of the 332nd, the show becomes a neat package of humanity and history, tied together in ways which emphasize the human cost of prejudice as well as conflict. As such it becomes a truly American tale.
Special acknowledgement needs to go to projection designer Clint Allen, whose work makes the moments of action come alive on Beowulf Boritt’s cockpit-shaped set. It’s a visual treat, even in its stark simplicity.
In short, go see this. The tale is compelling, deeply emotional, and essentially true. The acting is top-notch from start to finish. The minimalism of setting makes the story the star. And the ending is one of the most moving of recent memory. What a marvelous addition to what has long been designated as Black History Month.
What: “Fly” When: Through February 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, with $125 premium seating Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org