By Anna Marie D’Addarie
“History is the river we stand in,” Chet (Charlie Hudson, III) tells the audience at the beginning of “Fly,” the first play of the summer season at the Vineyard Playhouse. This play is all about history: not Black History or white-washed American History, but all our histories: each one of us who calls him or herself and American can lay claim to part of the story. Some of us may not like what we see.
“Fly” tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II from flight training to success in the sky for the all-black air corp.
The play is framed with the Inauguration of President Obama where the Tuskegee Airmen were honored guests. Director, and co-playwright, Ricardo Khan has his cast of seven men tell the story with an in-your-face style that leaves no doubt these men will succeed and will not be broken by the racism all around them. On the first day of flight training, Capt. O’Hurley (Joe Forbrich) brags to the new trainees that he washed out 69% of the previous class. He has high hopes that he can break that record with the group he sees standing in front of him.
How these men get through the training is a testament to their sheer willpower. At almost every turn they are told they will not succeed: they are not smart enough; they do not poses the physical skills; they will turn and run in the face of danger; they are not patriotic enough to fight for their country. We in the audience know none of this is true. We sit comfortably in our seats in 2009. A black man is our president. But how many of us would have had the courage these aviators had to fight bravely for a country that didn’t even recognize them as men? Where does such courage come from? “Fly” tries to answer that question.
For those of us born after World War II, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen may be just a footnote. If nothing else, I hope this article inspires you to learn more about them. I had the pleasure of meeting James W. McLaurin, a DOTA, a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman. Mr. McLaurin is a big man who has a bright smile, a large hand that engulfs yours when he shakes it, and kind eyes with a twinkle in them. His voice is deep but not loud. He lives on Martha’s Vineyard part of the year and “Fly” has brought him into the spotlight. Mr. McLaurin met with the cast during rehearsals and provided valuable information but more importantly, inspiration. You can’t help but feel a deep admiration for him. At the opening night party on June 21, Mr. McLaurin spoke of those days in Tuskegee. He was 21 years old but had his pilot’s license for 5 years already. He said, “We all just wanted to fly.”
Telling the Story
The cast is very aware of their responsibility in telling this story. This isn’t just another play to add to their already impressive resumes. One night after a preview show, the tired cast stayed behind to talk to a Navy fighter pilot, a man in his 90s, now in a wheel chair who had just seen the show. The veteran congratulated the cast and one of them responded, “No. We thank you for your service.” It was a touching moment, one of many moments this play inspires.
“Fly” moves smoothly between memory and stark reality with the help of Ted Louis Levy who enhances the plot with his tap dancing, sometimes a sound effect, other times Greek chorus, always wonderful. Choreographer Hope Clarke elevates simple cadence to high art through Mr. Levy. The cast picks up the beat and soon everyone is flying including the audience.
The set is almost bare. A large projection screen fills the up-stage wall. Green military trunks and five stainless steel chairs are in a V formation on stage. The chairs become the fighter planes and the actors tip them back and forth precariously, keeping the audience on edge as we fear for them. Good staging by director Khan.
The sound effects, by Jim Novack, are perfect. Just the right amount of jarring gunfire and engine noise that seems to rise up from far away, inching closer, taking the audience into the action.
The cast, excellent all, are: Ted Louis Levy, the Tap Griot; Charlie Hudson, III, Chet; Robert Kama Robinson, W.W.; Samuel T. Gaines, Oscar; Mark Hairston, J. Allen; Joe Forbrich, Capt. O’Hurley; Walker Lewis, Col. Snopes. The play was written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan.
“Fly” was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education and the Vineyard Playhouse production is billed as a “work-in-progress.”
Speaking at the opening night party to the assembled audience, cast, and crew, Mr. McLaurin said he has seen many (if not all) of the videos, documentaries, and films about the Tuskegee Airmen, but this play was the first time he cried. Nothing more needs to be said.
For history, photographs, and additional information about the Tuskegee Airman visit:
The Vineyard Playhouse is a community based professional theater operating year round.
For more information visit: www.vineyardplayhouse.org