A Place of Your Own

For black folk in 1898, an all-black town must have sounded impossibly wonderful. Nicodemus, Kansas, was such a town, as were many other towns like it that were settled in the great and now largely forgotten black exodus in the 1880s and 1890s to the Midwest. If the frontier served as America's collective mythic dream, it was even more so for the sons and daughters of emancipation, who were realizing that the 13th Amendment in no way abolished violent, wretched oppression.

Set in Nicodemus, Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West, The Ensemble Theatre's Black History Month play, directed by Ntozake Shange, is an account of four women who seek a place where they "can really be free instead of spending our lives working for the same people that used to own us." Just as the black-founded town in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God offered refuge to a people direly in need of it, so did Nicodemus offer the dream of true independence. "Colored towns, full of colored people only! That sounded more like heaven than anything else I'd heard in church," says Sophia, the most visionary of the play's pioneer women.

It's a coup for The Ensemble to recruit a nationally recognized figure such as Shange to direct Flyin' West. Shange first returned to Houston a year ago when The Ensemble asked her to direct a historic production of her for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf -- historic because it was the first time she'd had anything to do with her now-classic play since it debuted. Just a few days before the opening of Flyin' West, Shange told Ensemble artistic director Eileen Morris that she would be the theater's resident director, news that was announced at the play's opening last Friday night. Although this may only translate to one Shange-directed play a season, it will further enhance the prestige and standing of the 19-year-old company.

In her own work, Shange's subject is often women's relationships, and Flyin' West is about the relationships between its characters -- three sisters and one older former female slave named Miss Leah -- and their relationship to the land. The oldest sister, Sophia, had moved the orphaned family to Kansas after hearing the exhortations of Pap Singleton, known in history as the Moses of the Colored Exodus. She is trying to organize the other homesteaders so they won't sell out to the white speculators who are beginning to have designs on their property. The youngest sister, Minnie, is back visiting after having moved to London with her poet husband, Frank, a supercilious mulatto who's transformed the debasement he's received at the hands of his white brothers into disgust at the black race, and most especially his black wife.

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Flyin' West deals with elements of black history so wrenching that the mere evocation of them works a dramatic effect on the emotions. It's an apt play for Black History Month. As says Miss Leah -- who bore her first ten babies into slavery and had them all sold before their father got to see them -- "Colored folks can't forget the plantation any more than they can forget their own names. If we forget that, we ain't got no history past last week."

The play's strength comes largely from the force of its narratives -- its tales of slavery, of people being forced to "breed" under the eyes of the overseer, of babies being sold off before they're weaned -- but it also comes from the liveliness and innate appeal of its colloquial language and exchanges. Under Shange's spirited direction, the play has some wonderful comic moments. Although its subject is serious, and at times the treatment heavy-handed, Flyin' West is finally a play light and engaging with the ebullience of freedom calling.

As Sister Sophia, Alice Gatling is a constant strength holding up the play. Given a role that could have easily been mangled and overdone, she instead plays the prototypical tough pioneer woman with color and warmth. Jean Donatto was utterly convincing as Miss Leah -- a veteran homesteader and ex-slave full of piss and vinegar. (When one of the younger women tries to help her retire, she retorts, "One thing a woman my age should have the good sense to do alone is go to bed.") She shines at the comic, especially her tour de force monologue that serves as the play's climax. Angela Lemond is fresh and youthful as Minnie. Daria James' portrayal of the middle sister Fannie, though, could have been more rounded.

Men do not fare well in this play, especially as represented by the cruel husband Frank, who's rather a cardboard ass. Davi Jay does well enough with what he's given, and Troy Hogan's Wil Parrish was a surprise treat -- a hayseed with charisma.

For their set, The Ensemble stretches the stage from wing to wing to put the audience in mind of the "vastness of the Kansas prairie," as the stage notes say. Characters stay on-stage and silently mime their business as action takes place to their side; this land is big enough to accommodate more than a roomful of talk.

And that's what the play is about: land and freedom. In the program notes, Shange says she was drawn to Flyin' West because her family also found their freedom by going west. "A person can be amazingly happy on the Great Plains," wrote Ian Frazier in his book Great Plains, after he'd just watched the Founders' Day parade that's still part of Nicodemus, Kansas' cultural life. "Joy seems to be a product of the geography, just as deserts can produce mystical ecstasy and English moors produce gloom. Once happiness gets rolling in this open place, not much stops it." And for the black homesteader, this joy must have been especially sharp, since the misery that preceded it was so numbing and vast.

Flyin' West plays through February 19 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.

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