While numerous documentaries and a George Lucas-backed Hollywood film have been made about the Red Tails, aka, The Tuskegee Airmen, none have captured the heart and spirit of their story better than Ford Theatre’s production of Fly. Directed by the renowned Ricardo Khan, Fly tells the harrowing story of four young African-American soldiers battling not only the World War II axis, but also racial discrimination within the US military.
Though not a musical, Fly sort of feels like one, using dance and post-depression era jazz and blues to recount the highlights of the Tuskegee Airmen’s emotional journey into history. Among the show’s most successful and metaphorical elements is the Tap Griot played by Omar Edwards. He is a constant mystical presence who uses tap dance to convey the joy, angst, and fury of the soldiers. Edwards, who stomps and shuffles with intensity, does not disturb the action and dialogue of the main characters, but instead beautifully enhances each scene. Likewise choreographer Hope Clarke and fight director Rick Sordelet create special moments, such as Military marches and the celebratory fraternal line dance, that while clearly technical and complex, manage to accentuate the Black squadron’s successes and failures. Not to mention, they resonate with the crowd and often prompt uproarious applause.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt alongside lighting designer Rui Rita and projection designer Clint Allen construct a clean set complete with geometric hanging panels onto which are projected archival footage, bursts of light (simulated gunfire), and cloud-filled skies. As a result we get to see the world from the airmen’s sky high perspective. Pretty cool! Surprisingly successful is the use of a few mere chairs to mimic airplane cockpits, the actors jutting left to right, back and forth to simulate flight, air combat and turbulence. The narrative is so compelling audiences readily buy into this suspension of disbelief.
Fly’s four main characters, the Tuskegee Airmen, are a colorful quartet. Each hopeful airman has a distinct and entertaining personality. The foursome displays an obvious chemistry and brotherhood marked by both camaraderie and tension. Mark Hairston’s portrayal of Oscar, an almost excessively prideful West Indian native, is charming and likable despite the character’s shortcomings. Damien Thompson (J. Allen) offers a grounded and confident performance as an Iowa native and the group’s “race man.” Eric Berryman is a light-hearted, often comic presence as W.W., a slick Chicago-born playboy with unexpected depth. “If I can dream it I can be it” the character wisely avows. Lastly, Christopher Wilson’s portrayal of Chet Simpkins, the squadron’s doe-eyed youngster is delicate and endearing. From the very first scene in which Wilson directly addresses the audience as a much aged, nostalgic Red Tail, we are effusively invested in his story. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James and sound designer John Gromada further authenticate the lives of the aforementioned characters with fitting period clothing and music. Zoot suits, bomber jackets, and sultry, smoky, moody blues numbers remind the audience of a former era, a time still lovely though fraught with overt racism.
…resonates with the crowd and often prompt uproarious applause.
Actors James Konicek (Captain O’Hurley), Matt Bassett (Bomber Co-Pilot Shaw), and Clark Young (Bomber Pilot Reynolds) somehow manage to inject some humanity and self-deprecating humor into the potentially unlikeable, racist WW2 pilots they portray. While playwrights Khan and Trey Ellis teeter toward cliché when writing the roles of these hopelessly clueless White soldiers, all three characters are given a mild reprieve as they reluctantly face their own bigoted tendencies. We understand that they are products of their environment with the capacity to change for the better.
Fly is less about detailing the elaborate history of WW 2 and more about capturing the spirit of the elite African-American fighter squadrons who overcame racial intolerance in order to serve their country. While the play offers no real surprises, it does re-tell a significant American story with simplicity and respect. Khan and Ellis have written an inspiring family friendly play. And if that weren’t enough reason to see Fly, an original Tuskegee Airman and living legend, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., serves as the play’s production advisor.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Fly is at Ford’s Theatre, 514 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004, and runs through October 21. For more information or for tickets click here.