The set up:
There's a crucial lesson to be had in Fly, a play about the first American black military pilots, and it has nothing to do with race or politics or social justice. Yes, for sure, there's plenty of that really important stuff in there too. But the other takeaway from this play based on true events meant to educate and inspire is that if you want to people to pay attention to an historical story, you can't make it seem like a classroom lecture. Or at least that's the lesson playwrights Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan were hoping to tap into when they wrote and staged Fly at Lincoln Centre in 2008.
Originally a one-hour children's play, now expanded to an almost two-hour, two-act play and no longer marketed for a youth audience, 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, Ala., the town where they trained from 1941 to 1949.
It's a tall order for a play about U.S. military desegregation, prejudice, and the progress of civil rights not to feel somewhat didactic or at the very least sentimental. In an effort to thwart this kind of heavy handed treatment, Ellis and Khan have injected elements into the production that attempt to keep the narrative away from merely a "good for you" kind of theater experience.
The injected elements at play here are video projection and dance. Let's get the video stuff out of the way first as 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 their own reason for signing up) I'll give you one 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. A classroom scene? The video shows desks. The men in their quarters? Projections of bunks. When the men take to the skies, it will come as no surprise that the projections are of open sky or fighter planes in action. Actually if you watch the video long enough you'll realize that the fighter plane projections are actually just an eight secondish loop of the same dull black and white images over and over again.
Every once in a while the projections do something clever like cover the side walls of the theater in clouds when the pilots are in the sky. But mostly the images are unimaginatively obvious, adding no real intrigue to the production. Even the eight-minute educational video that opened the play was dull as wood. Meant to give the audience a history of black combat exclusion and later segregated participation in the military, the film (which should have intellectually and emotionally stoked the audience) looked like something a 1970s substitute teacher would have shown in class so that she didn't have to teach. The whole effort threatened to send us into video projection hypnosis.
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 microphone levels the cast donned, which were cranked up far beyond reason. Then there's the narrative itself which has the four black pilots spending much of the play fighting among themselves. None of them want to be one of the few men "washed out" of the program by their direct from central casting, one dimensional bigoted white training captain. 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 is 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 this time, Khan and Ellis introduce a voiceless character, Tap Griot. In case that name doesn't ring a bell (hey I had to look it up too) a Griot is a member of a West African tribe whose job it is to keep alive the oral history of his people with entertaining stories, poems, songs and dances. In this case, dance is our Griot's MO and he's present almost the entire time on stage lurking about, handing things to the pilots or REALLY LOUDLY BREAKING INTO TAP DANCE. But wait a second, before we complain about the heavy footed hoofing that makes our head pound and often drowns out the dialogue, what were Ellis and Khan thinking bringing this style of dance into this kind of story?
The idea apparently was to have Tap Griot be some kind of emphasizer or metaphor for how the pilots (manly the youngest one Chet who narrates the show) are feeling. Since a black man couldn't freely express himself in WW II America and certainly not in the white man's army, Griot would show the audience how the men really felt through dance. It's a commendable idea. A creative and unexpected one too that certainly would have elevated this history story far beyond the ordinary. Perhaps in another director's hand's it would have worked. But Woods doesn't seem to have any grace or finesse in injecting Griot's numbers. They stomp in and out in odd places (why do we need a tap sequence running concurrently with the men's classroom training session?) and never impart any emotion other than our silent pleading desire for a Tylenol. Which is not to say that Kendrick Brown's efforts as the Griot aren't without talent. His tap skills are strong, but it's a talent wasted in the wrong places.
Woods also fails in staging what should be edge of your seat combat scenes and instead gives us lukewarm imagery. To simulate flight and pilot combat, Woods has his cast sitting in metal rolling chairs so they can "fly" around the stage by pushing off the ground with their feet. It's a technique often used in productions to simulate everything from riding in cars to trains and even sailboats. And, when staged elegantly, it can work. But here Woods throws his men about like clunky shopping cars with wobbly wheels. They miss marks, they get stuck, they are out of synch and they just aren't cool. The effect is that we aren't watching combat pilots, we are watching a bunch of grown men in pilot uniforms lurching around the stage in rollie chairs.
Despite all of this, the actors playing the four pilots all do a fine job eking out character. Kendrick "KayB" Brown playing Chet is sweet as the youngest of the pilots, just 17 but the most talented flyer. As the narrator, we meet an elderly Chet at the start and end of the play and Brown does a nice transitional job 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 on stage that makes him instantly likeable even if his character is as thinly crafted as tracing paper. Nikem Richard Nwankwo as J. Allen, a Jamaican man enlisted to impress his father, gives us an intense anger that feels more real than any other character onstage. Finally Joe "JoeP" Palmore as WW, a ladies man that admits his desire to be a pilot has to do with snagging babes, wins out hearts with swagger and coolness.
The verdict: 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 didn't give us much to actually hold onto. Sure we get simplistic combat scenes in the air and on the ground when the pilots butt up against the prejudiced attitudes of the day.
But each time there was an opportunity for a character to open up and actually express how they felt beyond one line platitudes, we instead got eardrum splitting tap dancing. Or occasional marching/dancing from the pilots themselves. Theater like this is not a conceptual piece. 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.
No one knows exactly how many Tuskegee Airmen there were. One guess is that presently there are only 200 of them left, mostly in their eighties. It's fair to say that this number will decrease dramatically in the next few years. We can be thankful that Fly introduced us to them. But if one really wants to hear and know these men (at a sound level where hearing is listening as opposed to bracing) then I'm afraid that this production only scratches the most shallow of surfaces.
Fly continues through February 22 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. EnsembleHouston.com
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