Capsule Stage Reviews: February 5, 2015

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Fly Written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, Fly tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first division of black aviators to fight in combat during World War II. Formally called the 332nd Fighter Group, the pilots took their nickname from Tuskegee, Alabama, the town where they trained from 1941 to 1949. In creating the show, Ellis and Khan desired to make the play not so much a history lesson as a history story, something non-didactic and more engaging. To do so, they incorporated elements of video and dance. Let's get the video stuff out of the way first since it's the more successful, if rather pedestrian, effort of the two. As we meet four young black men boarding the train for Tuskegee so they can train to fly planes in the war (each has his own reason for signing up), I bet you can guess what the large video screen on the back wall of the stage shows. If you said a train moving along, you'd be correct. The same obvious choice is true for flying scenes (projected open skies), combat scenes (videos of fighter jets) and classrooms (images of desks), etc. The images are mostly painfully tiresome, adding nothing remotely intriguing or engaging to the production. However, nodding off is not an issue in this play thanks to HOW VERY LOUD THE ENTIRE PRODUCTION IS. AND BY LOUD I MEAN HEADACHE-INDUCING-LEVEL LOUD. Some of this has to do with the cranked-up microphone levels the cast donned. Then there's the narrative itself, which has the four main black pilot characters spending much of the play fighting among themselves. Director Allie Woods seems to think that no piece of dialogue couldn't be made stronger simply by having his actors shout the lines at the audience and at each other. The other reason behind the decibel level of the show is the aforementioned dance element, which in this case is tap. In addition to the four black flyers and some miscellaneous white characters whose job it is to illustrate how horribly blacks were treated and thought of in the United States at the time, Khan and Ellis introduce a voiceless character, Tap Griot. Griot's MO is to spend the entire time onstage lurking about, handing things to the pilots or REALLY LOUDLY BREAKING INTO TAP DANCE to illustrate how the characters are feeling. Woods also fails in staging what should be edge-of-your-seat combat scenes and instead gives us lukewarm and at times risible imagery. Despite all this, the actors playing the four pilots all do a fine job eking out character. Kendrick "KayB" Brown is sweet as the youngest of the pilots, just 17 but the most talented flyer. We meet the elderly Chet, the narrator, at the start and the end of the play, and Brown does a nice job transitioning between the two ages. Jason Carmichael as Oscar, a man who chooses to fly because it's "for his people," has an ease about him onstage that makes him instantly likable even if his character is as thinly crafted as onion paper. Nikem Richard Nwankwo as J. Allen, a Jamaican man who enlisted to impress his father, gives us an intense anger that feels more real than that of any other character onstage. Finally, Joe "JoeP" Palmore as WW, a ladies' man who admits his desire to be a pilot has to do with snagging babes, wins our hearts with swagger and coolness. While Ellis and Khan may have succeeded in not giving us a mere instructive examination of how the Tuskegee airmen came to be, they certainly don't give us much to actually hold onto. While my complaint often skews toward "show, don't tell" in theater, here's an example where a little "tell and knock off the showing" might have gone a long way toward connecting us to these amazingly brave and important men. Through February 22. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, — JG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman