Fly is a soaring piece of work that portrays a sense of the battles faced by the Tuskegee Airmen even before they took to the sky. Co- written by Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis, and beautifully directed by Khan, Fly brings history to life in depicting four black aviators who beat the odds and flew fighter jets to combat German occupation.
The Washington D.C. premiere starts with the spirit of the ancestors presented through large scale projections on the walls (scenic design by Beowulf Boritt) depicting the plight of slaves, oppression and the struggles for civil rights. The production stresses the importance of freedom, and engages the full American experience when later in the show a white commander warns of impending loss of freedom for all, blacks and whites alike, if the West does not prevail in combat.
All of the actors come through with flying colors in portraying their particular characters. Those who caught Mark Hairston’s riveting performance as a newly freed slave in Theatre J’s Whipping Man can enjoy his remarkable rendition of Oscar, the “race man” who strives to do right by and for his people. Christopher Wilson is another standout as the underage soldier who calls his Mom on periodic telephone breaks. Damian Thompson plays a Caribbean pilot wanna-be offering a multicultural perspective on slavery’s ubiquitous reach, and Eric Berryman plays the Chicago slick hipster, complete with a funky, lean, zoot suit and conk, so full of himself that there’s presumably no way that the four will survive as a cohesive unit.
But despite the insults, impenetrable racism, and constant efforts to erode their confidence and unity, the men find a way to surpass their own differences and become world-renown fighter pilots. James Konicek as the captain hurls pejorative insults and snarls with contempt while carrying out his assigned duties – he trains them well despite his own entrenched ideology which Konicek portrays effectively. Matt Bassett and Clark Young round out the cast as the other flyers who transition to accept the black aviators as part of the winning ensemble.
Original music and sound design by John Gromada in tandem with lighting by Rui Rita relayed the spirit of freedom in flight. The sense of being airborne is so significant that one character states that’s the only place he feels truly free, and another remarks that there are worst ways to die than falling from heaven.
The set consists of enormous panels on the sides and back that tilt in an aerodynamic way suggesting that we are inside an airplane. In one scene, each trainee goes up in tandem with the drill sergeant who warns them—“Try not to kill me!” It’s here where the simultaneous airplane propeller sound blends almost seamlessly with the visuals of clouds as the actors lean back to make their ascent. The descent and landing are not as crystal clear since the clouds are still in sight when they land, but we get the picture, thanks to great projection design by Clint Allen.
The combination of sights and sound of combat bring the audience directly into the fight formation as each pilot targets his attack complete with rounds of artillery fire. The pilots synchronize their movements sitting on chairs as if piloting the jets that bob and weave in perfect formation soaring in the sky.
What also brings the show alive is incorporating the incredible dancing of the Tap Griot, Omar Edwards, understudied by the remarkable Leo Manzari. In unforgettable dance sequences, the Griot serves as the soul of the characters, tapping out their inner turmoil and deepest frustrations with the heartbeat of a drum. The Griot anchors the characters in their heritage and tradition. It’s a masterful way to reinforce this aspect of the cultural legacy, and the choreography is exquisite.
Closes October 21, 2012
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20004
1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $40 – $62
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Speaking of choreography, the characters also get a chance to strut their own moves, most notably, performing some of the best stomp and step this side of Howard University. The aviators also transformed the traditional sound-off cadence into steps and routines steeped in flavor of the Mother Land, thanks to Hope Clarke’s spirited choreography.
Once the pilots make it past training, they are immediately thrust into combat and demonstrate their first-rate skills and fortitude. Their accomplishments and feats of bravery cannot be denied, especially as the white pilots realize how much they need the brown bombers to succeed in missions and stay alive. Resistance slowly falls as the soldiers realize they’re in this together and need to work as a united force accordingly, rendered in playful as well as deadly serious aerial scenes in the production.
A recurring line in the script is that we are all standing in the river of history. The confluence of the insightful messages, focused direction and exciting production design make this a remarkable show, especially when you realize that the many of the unsung heroes represented by the characters are still with us, sporting their red blazers eager to share their stories. [See The Lincoln Legacy Project events]. Also, one of the airmen, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., served as Production Advisor.
Seeing the show in the historic Ford’s Theater under the watchful gaze of Lincoln’s legacy is priceless, and probably as good as it gets.
Fly, by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. Directed by Ricardo Khan. Featuring Eric Berryman, Mark Hairston, Damian Thompson and Christopher Wilson as Tuskegee Airmen W.W., Oscar, J. Allen and Chet, Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot , and Matt Bassett, James Konicek, Clark Young and Kahlil X. Daniel. Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt, Projections, Clint Allen Costume Design:Toni-Leslie James, Lighting Design: Rui Rita, Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada, Choreography: Hope Clarke, Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet, Dialects by Leigh Wilson Smiley. Production Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast, Assistant Stage Manager Kate Kilbane. Washington, D.C. native and former Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr. served as Production Advisor.
Produced by Ford’s Theatre. Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Kate Wingfield . Metro Weekly
Trey Graham . City Paper
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Grace Kim . DCMetroTheaterArts
Washingtonian . Missy Frederick
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Grace Kim . DCMetroTheaterArts