The Tuskegee Airmen take off to exhilarating, spellbinding, emotionally powerful effect as the Pasadena Playhouse presents Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s Fly, a West Coast Premiere destined to be one of the year’s most lauded, most unforgettable productions.
The first African-American military aviators in United States military history, the Tuskegee Airmen have been depicted multiple times in documentaries, movies, and TV series, but perhaps never as thrillingly as they are in Fly, which starts off by juxtaposing a video montage of African-American history from slavery to emancipation to the Civil Rights movement to the inauguration of Barack Obama as President Of The United States alongside the live performance of Omar Edwards as Tap Griot, who uses the medium of dance to express the rage and the sorrow and the anguish and the hopes of the men we are about to see take to the sky.
Fly then introduces us to its four young protagonists.
W.W. (Books Brantly) is a zoot-suited Chicagoan who sees himself as God’s gift to women. Oscar (Terrell Wheeler) has come from Iowa in hopes of serving not only his country but his race. West Indian J. Allen (Damian Thompson) sees things from the unique perspective of a man born and raised amongst a black majority. Seventeen-year-old licensed pilot Chet (Desmond Newson) wants so badly to fly that he has tacked on a year to his age in order to be allowed to serve.
Over the course of Fly’s mesmerizing ninety minutes, we follow these four Tuskegee Airmen through the rigors of basic training, made even more brutal by a racist drill sergeant (Anthony J. Goes as O’Hurley) bent on drumming out as many new “colored” recruits as humanly possible.
Making the foursome’s training even more distressing is being confronted for the first time with the Jim Crow laws of the pre-Civil Rights South, most notably when they are refused front-door entrance at a local bar.
Still, the quartet’s indomitable good humor and perseverance pays off, and before long they are high up in the skies over Italy and Germany, flying escort for the white bomber pilot/co-pilot team of Reynolds and Shaw (Brandon Nagle and Ross Cowan), who in one of Fly’s more lighthearted sequences discover midflight that their very lives are in the hands of four men of color, grinning with glee at the discomfort they’re causing simply by being who they are.
The laws of statistics make it clear from the get-go that not all four will survive. Less suspenseful is our certainty that Reynolds and Shaw will eventually be won over, and the latter’s tearful apology for a childhood wrong provides Cowan with an actor’s dream monolog (which he aces), and Fly with one of its most gut-wrenching moments.
Hope Clarke’s tap choreography (and the contemporarily coiffed “improvographer” Edwards’ performance of it) is downright brilliant, and even more exciting when the four airmen join Tap Griot with their own military footwork.
Beowulf Borritt backs his striking scenic design with cockpit window-shaped screens through which Clint Allen’s animated projections simulate combat flight via billowing clouds and bursts of gunfire (sounds provided by John Gromada), nimble actors in straight-back chairs completing the illusion of flight. Toni-Leslie James’s era-evoking costumes and Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot’s vibrant lighting complete Fly’s stunning production design to perfection.
Fly is produced by the Pasadena Playhouse in association with Crossroads Theatre Company. Orchestrations are by Gromada. Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet are fight directors. Casting (out of New York) is by Pat McCorkle, CSA and McCorkle Casting, LTD.
Kelli Karen is production stage manager, Jessica R. Aguilar is assistant stage manager, and Hethyr “Red” Verhoef is production manager. Joe Witt is general manager and Brad Enlow is technical director.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting way to celebrate Black History Month than a February 2016 evening or afternoon at the Pasadena Playhouse, though truth be told, if ever there were a production that ought to be seen by everyone regardless of age, gender, or race, Fly is that production, one that had its opening night audience standing up and cheering through smiles and tears.
Simply put, Fly soars high. Sky-high.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
January 31, 2016
Photos: Jim Cox Photography