The story of the Tuskegee Airmen gets set to open Ford’s Theatre’s season.
Ricardo Khan is a man of the theatre. He is the co-founder and former artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre Company, one of the premiere African-American theatres in the country.
Khan is used to telling stories through the medium of the stage, even when the inspiration comes from a surprising source.
During a meeting years ago, a photograph caught Khan’s eye. “It was a photo of the Tuskegee Airmen. I was stunned.”Seeing the men of color, dressed in their pilot’s uniforms fascinated Khan. “I wanted to know who these men were.”
Khan delved more deeply into the history and lives of these men. Ultimately, he knew he had to tell their story.
He and co-author Trey Ellis created Fly, a play based on the history of the Tuskegee Airmen who became some of the finest pilots of the Second World War. The men who entered the Tuskegee Institute formed the first African-American flying squadron in U.S. military history.
Khan said he and Ellis were not trying to recreate a history book. “The goal was to tell a story that makes it clearly a piece of theatre. We wanted to bring to life this American story.”
Fly was originally commissioned in 2005 by the Lincoln Center Institute where Khan is an artist in residence. The institute is the educational component of Lincoln Center. When the play premiered in 2007, thousands of middle and high school students attended performances.
Fly has now taken wing with a theatrical life of its own.
Washington’s historic Ford’s Theatre felt Fly would be a fitting production for their multiple-year Lincoln Legacy Project, the ongoing series to foster awareness of the issues of tolerance, equality and acceptance. The multimedia theatre experience is the opening production of Ford’s 2012-2013 season.
The Tuskegee Airmen, in spite of their unprecedented success, certainly faced the issues of acceptance, tolerance and equality.
It began as an experiment to see if black men could be trained to fly. In the time before World War II such a notion pinpoints how racial differences were entrenched in the consciousness in the United States. The United States Army and Army Air Corps were sharply segregated like the other branches of the armed forces. Blacks could not serve in the same unit as white servicemen with the same skills and training.
What became known as the Tuskegee Experiment was ordered into being by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. The fledging flying unit would be under the command of Captain Benjamin O. Davis, if it could get off the ground.
Indeed, it did.
The segregated 99th Fighter Squadron was formed from this experiment and the training began. Charles Alfred Anderson became the first African-American to earn his pilot’s license and the first flight instructor for the pilot training program.
Yet there was opposition. Tuskegee was in Alabama, in the heart of the racially divided south. There was more than a little skepticism that black men could be taught such specialized skills as flying an airplane. To the establishment, using these men in combat was even more preposterous.
Enter First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mrs. Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee training facility to see the program commanded by Capt. Davis. Over objections from the Secret Service, she insisted on taking a flight with one of the pilots. Instructor Charles Anderson took the pilot’s seat while Mrs. Roosevelt entered the small seating area of a yellow Piper Cub.
By the time she returned to Washington, a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt in the aircraft had appeared in newspapers around the world. Her visit with the Tuskegee Airmen helped convince FDR to allow the 99th to join the combat in Europe.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was followed by the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd Fighter Squadron. The squadrons were part of the 322nd and 477th Fighter Groups. They became known as the Red Tails, flying successful missions in the air over Italy. They were especially praised for escorting bombing missions. But their battles were not only in the air against the Axis powers.
White officers resisted the all-black squadron, and they were excluded from officer’s clubs. The Army Air Corps continued to be divided.
The men of Tuskegee ended up flying more than 1,500 missions during World War II. They never lost a bomber. They also earned more than 150 commendations and medals for their distinguished service.
More importantly, they earned respect from many of the same white officers and personnel who resisted their inclusion in the war’s European Theatre.
Returning home, the respect was short-lived. Their hard-earned medals would not earn them a place at a lunch counter or the front of a bus. Especially in the Jim Crow South, the heroes of the air were no better off than other African-Americans of the time.
But the Tuskegee Airmen blazed a heroic trail. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. Army, winning an early battle in the Civil Rights struggles to come.
Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis did not base Fly on a specific story from black fighter squadrons. The play focuses on four young men who enter the Tuskegee Academy. Chet is from Harlem, while W.W. is from Chicago. The Midwest is represented by Oscar, and J. Allen is from the West Indies.
There are also actors portraying the white men in the lives of the Airmen: officers and other pilots who questioned the program and who practiced the societal prejudice and institutional segregation.
The authors of Fly invented another character to personify much of the anger shared by the men of the Tuskegee Institute. This character would also serve a more basic role.
In West African tradition, a griot is charged with keeping oral history and sharing through music and storytelling. Khan explained, “We added the griot who uses tap dancing to tell part of the story. He expresses emotions that words cannot. We did that to add a contemporary feel and to help young people relate to the experience.”
Other aspects of Fly appeal to the other senses.
“In the beginning, our concept was almost one of a video game on the stage, where people would be constantly stimulated by the resources of the theatre.”
For the production at Ford’s Theatre, Khan directs his co-authored piece.
“We have made the show fast moving, visceral and completely non-realistic. We make magic as only the stage can and we ask that the audience bring their imagination with them.”
Khan said the scenic and lighting designers – Beowolf Boritt and Rui Rita, respectively – have provided a space onstage which provides a symbolic place representing both their training in Alabama and the skies above Europe.
“Half of the work is done by the designers; the audience does the other half.”
The director also praised the authenticity of the costumes by Toni Leslie James, and the projections by Clint Allen.
John Gromoda’s sound design includes both original music and examples of popular music of World War II, Khan said. “We have music by Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller, those giants of the era.”
During the creation of Fly, Khan built a relationship with one of the distinguished members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. was the squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron on the 322nd Fighter Group. He was in his 80s when he first worked with Khan and Ellis to add technical expertise and insight as they created the play.
Now, at age 90, Dr. Brown’s mind is still sharp, said Khan. The former commander spent several days in Washington during the rehearsals for the Ford’s Theatre production. Dr. Brown gave Khan much to think about, from his first-hand perspective.
“We learned from Dr. Brown that when we focus to aspire to be the best, we can overcome prejudice. The airmen did not hold on to excuses.”
Khan said there was a clear message, echoing one of his favorite quotes from Dr. Brown.
“Excellence overcomes prejudice.”
In the early days of World War II, a group of eager youngsters who shared a love of flying came together to prove excellence could do just that. Khan said, no matter how the story is told, the heart is still the same.
“There was a time in American history when a group of men crossed lines to fight something bigger than racism, they fought fascism.”
And earned their place in history.
Fly by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, directed by Ricardo Khan. Featuring Omar Edwards, Christopher Wilson, Eric Berryman, Mark Hairston, Damian Thompson, James Konicek, Matt Bassett, Clark Young.
Scenic Design by Beowolf Boritt, Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James, Lighting Design by Rui Rita
Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada, Projection Design by Clint Allen, Choreography by Hope Clarke, Fight Direction by Rick Sordelet, Dialect and Voice Direction by Leigh Wilson Smiley
Production Stage Manager … Brandon Prendergast, Assistant State Manager … Kate Kilbane, Production Advisor … Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr.
Source: Special thanks to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project for additional information for this feature.