The Ensemble Theatre's current show, Black Eagles, is based on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. During World War II, the squad of black fighter pilots flew 15,553 sorties, completed 1,578 missions and proved themselves expert airmen, in spite of a dubious white military that labeled training black pilots an "experiment." After the war, the pilots' demands for recognition led to a presidential review of the U.S. War Department's racial policies. Thus the Tuskegee Airmen fought -- and fought well -- two battles: one against Nazi Germany and another against American racism.
This bitter irony lies at the heart of Leslie Lee's play. The Eagles fight for an America that segregates them and will not allow them parity with white officers. Relegated to the dangerous but unglamorous work of "flying escort" for bombers, they are not given chances to down German planes and make the "kills" that define airman heroism. Terrible as the history is, the play could easily have reduced it to movie-of-the-week polemics.
But playwright Lee instead focuses on character, on the way in which individuals negotiate the pressures of injustice. Fastidious, cognac-sipping Roscoe quietly discusses his most private fears of death and dreams of flight with his best friend Julius, a wooden ventriloquist's dummy. Swaggering, unthinking Othel yammers his answers for everything, including how to get into Devita Leonard's pants (he'll whisper his "poem" into her ear: "Roses are red, bedbugs are black and blue, I love you, shoobie, doobie, doobie doo"). Buddy, the romantic, discovers a world in Italy altogether different from America, one that will allow him to fall openly in love with a white woman. And soft-spoken Leon spends his time scribbling poetry in a notebook.
At the center of the ensemble stand Clarkie and Nolan, pilots with hugely different ways of dealing with the racism. Conservative and thoughtful, well-intentioned Clarkie stays true to his girlfriend and watches over the other men. But he can't bring himself to speak out against the racist system that won't allow him to fly combat or eat in the segregated Officers' Club; he's afraid the military will send him home if he doesn't do "exactly" what they ask of him. Hot-tempered Nolan, on the other hand, rages against this military that requires him "to fly in formation" and won't allow him to "battle the Jerries, just like the white boys." He even wonders whether he's "fighting on the wrong damned side." Nolan's wondering clearly and profoundly insinuates a continuum between the systematic violence of Nazi Germany and the arbitrary violence of American Jim Crow laws.
The "formation" in which the black pilots must always fly is a powerful metaphor for the boundaries of racism. And when Nolan breaks formation to go chasing after a German plane, he makes it clear that he cannot reside within those dehumanizing boundaries -- and he also discovers that one man alone cannot easily change the world.
The play -- full of richly drawn characters with moving monologues, loud shouting matches and even an on-stage fistfight -- is an actor's dream. Happily, the Ensemble's cast fully embraces the script's demands, all the way from Rodney Walsworth, who has the unenviable task of bringing the stiff and rule-bound white General Lucas to life, to Lee Stansberry, who plays hot-headed Nolan with relentless energy. Michael Washington's Othel is an undeniable jerk who lights up the stage. As oddball Roscoe, Adrian Porter creates a richly developed character who moves easily from ludicrous demands to "sip" wartime cognac from snifters to an unexpected act of bravery.
An especially powerful performance comes from Davi Jay, who plays Clarkie. Jay's rigid carriage -- his hands held in frustrated fists, and his chin pushed forward in angry, painful denial -- captures the internal struggle of a man who was the top aerial gunner in his flight class, who "beat the white boys," only to find himself having to kowtow to inferior fliers in order to continue doing what he loves most.
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One of the loveliest moments of the night is delivered by Kevin Hamilton as the young would-be writer, Leon, when he recites his poem about a childhood spent dreaming of flight: They "sat often / As young, dusky, dark-skinned boys, / in the bright chill of autumn afternoons ... Necks craned ... eyes skyward ... wishing...." Hamilton wisely underplays this moment, allowing the audience to discover for themselves the imagery's power.
All these individual performances come together in large part due to the direction, which is mostly tight, smart and audacious. How Alex Morris gets his audience to believe that the six men on stage are piloting planes through wartime Italy is an act of theatrical magic that is better kept secret so as not to spoil the fun of discovery. Unfortunately, slower moments aren't as riveting: The love scenes between Buddy and Pia, the white Italian woman, are both poorly written and awkwardly staged; their "love" has all the fire and truth of a badly dubbed Italian art film from the '60s.
The set design by James Thomas and the lighting by Manning Mott also deserve recognition. The Ensemble spent a million dollars last year renovating the theater, giving it state-of-the-art technical capabilities. Thomas and Mott take full advantage of all the new toys a million dollars can buy. The result is a beautifully lit, provocative and surprising set that reaches skyward -- much like the Black Eagles themselves.
Black Eagles continues through Oct. 26 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, 520-0055.