‘Flyin’ West,’ now showing in-person at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, MD, through October 31, 2021, and streaming on-demand through November 14, 2021, is a magnificent reason to return to live theatre if you already haven’t done so.
…a cast that just owns these roles…Go see this show, or stream it.
This is a cast to celebrate: Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Miss Leah; Eleasha Gamble as Sophie Washington; Bianca Lipford as Minnie Dove Charles; Calvin McCullough as Frank Charles (Minnie’s husband); Briana Gibson Reeves as Fannie Dove; and Jefferson A. Russell as Wil Parson.
Written by Pearl Cleage, “Flyin’ West” takes us to Nicodemus, a town on the northwest Kansas plains. It was founded by newly freed slaves in 1877 as a refuge from the Reconstruction-era South, and a reflection of the mass Black migration from the South to the Midwest after the Civil War. Nicodemus was both the first Black community west of the Mississippi River and is the only predominantly Black community west of the Mississippi that remains a living community (albeit a small one) today. As this play shows, even there, white folk wanted to either run the Black community out or take over the work they’d put in and run them off.
This play also reveals, in heartbreaking detail, it wasn’t just white people that hated and feared Black people. Frank Charles is, as he says, a mulatto, and the illegitimate son of a white slave owner who has white half-brothers. He is inordinately proud of that and it leads to sorrow. McCullough has a hard role to play. His rejection of anything Black makes him suspect in the eyes of Black people and means nothing to white people. He imbues this role with an undercurrent of fear and self-loathing that earns him some empathy from the audience, even as his actions and words are repulsive. McCullough manages to find the shades of grey in this character.
It is also a very funny play. Freeman, as Miss Leah, has a way with comedy. One of the funniest moments comes when she starts putting together an apple pie—and that’s as far as I can say without a spoiler. Given what that pie will be used for, her absolute delight in knowing this particular recipe is priceless. Like all of the women, hers is a strong character.
Cleage creates her characters with different strengths. These women and men have survived slavery and the aftermath, and then simply gathered what they could and walked westward toward a place they thought of as their promised land. Then, after putting in the work and building houses and plowing and planting land, white speculators began to arrive and try to low-ball the Black settlers into selling. Sophie has become a leader in the community. She’s no-nonsense, tough, and has a dream of the kind of security and haven Nicodemus could be. Fannie is more the romantic. She and Wil are slowly (very slowly) courting and, as a former slave, she holds the concept of marriage in reverence. When Minnie and Frank come back to Minnie’s home to visit her sisters and Miss Leah, she is horrified at the cracks she can see in the marriage—and sees it as Minnie’s responsibility to submit to her husband, even as he’s physically abusive.
Now that she is 21, Minnie is to be given a deed for one-third of the land that the three women had claimed and nurtured. That is the only reason that Frank had agreed to the trip (they were living in London where he was a poet).
But it’s Miss Leah who will come up with a plan to resolve the problem that Frank has brought home. Fannie comes to understand how a woman, who saw her ten babies sold off and still survived, came to make the hard choices, not out of fear, but hope and love. We watch Minnie, the youngest, imbibe that lesson also, and learn what home and family mean.
Cleage covers a lot of ground in this story of a few days in the life of one family—blood and otherwise—and she does so with a sure touch and a storyteller’s born instinct on how to keep the audience yearning to know what happens next. This cast—Gamble, Freeman, Lipford, McCullough, Reeves, and Russell—take the words and the deeper meanings and bring them to full, satisfying life with words, gestures, movement.
The set is designed by Andrew Cohen and evokes the stability that these people earned through their labor and made their own. Costume designer David Burdick has captured each character in the clothes they wear—from Sophie’s no-nonsense canvas coat to Minnie’s au courant hat and Fannie’s softer silhouette. The lighting by Harold F. Burgess II sets the mood for each scene, and manages to evoke the wide skies—day or night—of the Kansas prairie. There’s a very open feel even if most of the action takes place in the cabin and the dooryard. The fights and intimacy scenes were overseen by Lewis Shaw and they ring with truth.
Director Paige Hernandez has created a beautiful moment in time that people may not be aware of or have forgotten. She helps bring the words and the feelings to life in a way that grabs the audience’s attention and holds it gently throughout the show.
“Flyin’ West” is a story that celebrates, above all, survival in the face of horror. And not just survival, but growth, love, laughter, dreams, generosity, honor and strength. With a cast that just owns these roles, it’s both a story and message that I think we all need to see and hear right now. Go see this show, or stream it.
Running Time: Aproximately two hours and twenty minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Show Advisory: 12+ and older.
“Flyin’ West” runs through October 31, 2021 in person at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. You must purchase digital streaming access by Sunday, October 31st at midnight. You can watch the performance at your leisure up until November 14th but your tickets must be secured by the October 31st. For more information, please click here.