When I talk with young want-to-be writers, they better dare not utter the question, “But what is there to write about?” For if they do, I find the nearest volume of history and proceed to beat them senseless with it. Of course to make such a statement shows a damnable lack of sense to begin with.
History, as Shakespeare, Dickens, Jack Pulman, George MacDonald Fraser, Steven Saylor, Bruce Alexander, and just about any other writer worthy of his ink knows is the great font. The struggle of Diderot and the Encyclopédie, the 300 at Thermopylae, the French Revolution, the trials of Margaret Sanger, the Miracle at Midway, history offers an inexhaustible supply of source material for any story weaver.
In “Flyin’ West” playwright Pearl Cleage has brought to the stage of the Long Beach International City Theatre a fascinating and unjustly forgotten period in the history of this country; the flight of former slaves from the post-Reconstruction South to the vast western lands.
In the years following the Civil War and well into the late 1880’s perhaps as many as 50,000 African-American homesteaders uprooted from the devastated South and went seeking new lives west of the Mississippi River.
Having recently endured a mediocre play, that shall remain nameless, * which insisted it was historically valid when it was a fraudulent concoction entirely with no basis in fact, it was refreshing to find in the press kit, material illustrating this epic upheaval as well as information on the founding in 1877 of the town of Nicodemus, Kansas by newly freed slaves.
It is in Nicodemus where Ms. Cleage sets her story of four black women who have come together to tame the rough, wild land they’ve settled on to build a community where freedom and dignity can be had by all.
Years prior to the opening of the play Miss Leah (Robin Braxton) a freed slave, came to the land where the town of Nicodemus would arise. There she took under her care two small sisters, Fannie and Minnie orphaned at the deaths of their parents. Later, another young girl, Sophie, abandoned and hungry would come to her door seeking food for work, and she would be welcome in as a third “sister”.
It is now many years later. Sophie (Cheri Lynne Vanden-Heuvel) is a rifle-packing Amazon of the plains who has expanded the family’s holdings to where it’s fallen under the envious eyes of white land speculators.
Fannie (Leilani Smith) cares for the elderly Miss Leah and fends off the romantic advances of Wil (Boise Holmes) a local laborer.
The family anxiously awaits the imminent return of the younger sister Minnie (Aisha D. Benton). She and her husband Frank (Dylan Mooney) have been living in London, but are now returned to the States in order for Frank to seek his fair share of his recently deceased white father’s estate which is being challenged by his white half brothers.
The primary conflict of the work takes root in the friction between Frank and Minnie’s family over his treatment of her and his elevated sense of superiority due to his “white” blood.
I have always found the productions at the ICT to be of the finest caliber, and “Flyin’West” is no exception, however, I admit to finding the show rather pat, and terribly predictable.
It is not a badly written play, so much as a well written melodrama.
Like an antebellum rendering of “Married with Children” the audience is manipulated into booing the villain and hooting the heroes, and in that regard Ms. Cleage has written what can be called “a crowd pleaser.” I just am not among that crowd.
The actors are talented and work their roles for all they’re worth, especially Mr. Holmes and Ms. Braxton.
The rest of the cast I am certain could have done better had they more to work with, but sadly Ms. Cleage has taken the easy path here, and so a story that could have made for superb drama is served up as “MacTheatre”.
Director Saundra McClain manages to conjure some pretty moments, but the moments, like the play, pack the emotional punch of a dandelion.
I have argued in the past, that obtaining “excellence” is not a question of grand and sweeping concept and vaunting inspiration, but that “excellence” is achieved merely by doing just “that much more”. Giving something just “that much more” effort, or “that much more” thought. “Excellence” is not a majestic mountain’s lofty peak, “excellence” is a pile of the thousands of decisions made in any production, which when given just “that much more” stacks up to undreamt of heights.
I see no aspect in “Flyin’ West” that benefited from just “that much more.”
Two areas where that failing seems apparent to me:
Ms. Vanden-Heuvel’s character is a towering hulk of a woman who lives off the land, hunts and dresses deer and pours her hopes and sweat into increasing the family’s holdings. She probably has one set of working clothes which she has worn day in and day out for the proverbial months of Sunday. So how come she looks like she just got off the rack?
In Frank, the abusive husband of Minnie, Mr. Mooney has been burdened with a stock villain to portray. There is no nuance to the character, no insights offered as to the toll demanded by a hatred of self. No exploration of the dynamics between the desire to be taken into a group and the wish to obliterate the self. On that note, Frank is constantly boasting to his sister-in-laws that he is even able to “pass” in white company. Mr. Mooney would not. Now if this is intended to display the character’s disconnection from reality, it was not orchestrated to convey such a disillusion to the audience. If the character of Frank was intended to be, what was referred to in the Carolinas, as “high yellow”, then the problem was in casting, and the lines should have been removed.
In the final analysis, while I felt the show beneath the standards I’ve come to expect from the good folks at the Long Beach International City Theatre, the show is nevertheless entertaining, and the most damning criticism you can level at it is: it could have been better and it should have been better.
*Changed my mind, it was “The Whipping Man”.
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: April 5
Sundays at 2 p.m.: April 6