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Fly (Review)

Straighten up and fly right

By Rick Pender · September 16th, 2013 · Onstage
online review of flyplayhouse (9-14) - photo sandy underwoodPhoto: Sandy Underwood
There’s a lot to like about Fly, Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s 90-minute play about the Tuskegee Airmen, African-Americans who trained as pilots during the 1940s and ultimately served heroically as pilots in the Army Air Corps. The story focuses on four characters — underage eager beaver Chet (David Pegram) from Harlem, stylish ladies' man W.W. (Eddie R. Brown III) from Chicago, hardcore “race man” Oscar (Will Cobbs) from Iowa and proudly arrogant J. Allen (Terrell Donnell Sledge) from the West Indies — who represent the spectrum of guys who came into the program, some from college, some from the world of work, all eager to make something of themselves.

As was the case for all the airmen, these four must overcome tremendous prejudice by employing intelligence and discipline during their training. The slightest slip meant a washout, and even those who succeeded were treated with suspicion, disbelief, ignorance and hatred. So emotions had to be suppressed. 

Those emotions are often personified by a performer handling Fly’s most innovative aspect, the role of the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards). He plays an array of peripheral supporting roles, but also with fluid motion and furious feet, he brings to life their feelings of pride, fear, grief and anger. With staging by playwright/director Khan, the quartet of trainees also utilize choreography (by Hope Clarke), some natural, as in marching (evolving from incompetent to fully synchronized), some in consort with the Edwards’ tap work, and much in the recreation of flight.

The latter is portrayed with arms outstretched birdlike or seated in a chair imagined as a cockpit, but with stylized motion that enables the audience to feel the physicality of flying in an era when the distance between man and machine was narrow and aerial combat was not all that far from fighting hand-to-hand. 

Enhancing Fly’s portrayal of military flight in the 1940s is scenic design (Tony nominee and Obie winner Beowulf Boritt) and sound (John Gromada, another award winner with a long list of Broadway and off-Broadway credits) that takes audiences aloft using visuals — projected on five panels that evoke the windows surrounding a gunnery officer on a bomber. It’s very easy to get caught up in the camaraderie of the bomber escorts as well as the physical fury as they encounter enemy fighters aloft.

Other characters in the story — white training officers, pilots and a few minor characters — are played by Greg Brostrom, Cary Donaldson and Timothy Sekk in multiple roles. In particular, Sekk and Donaldson play bomber co-pilots who overcome personal prejudice to choose Pegram and Brown’s characters as their escort. Their interaction is human and humorous as they step beyond long-held beliefs to see the Tuskegee-trained pilots as valiant, talented comrades.

Fly was originally commissioned by Lincoln Center Education in New York City as a 60-minute student show, subsequently expanded to its current 90-minute version in 2009. Those added 30 minutes made for a more full-fledged production, but there are stretches that feel unnecessary, especially some recreations of training and rambunctious rivalry between the four men that feel repetitive, melodramatic and predictable. The show opens and closes with mention of “the river of history,” framed by President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a point of reference for the distance America has come since the 1940s. That’s a meaningful reminder, but it short-circuits the storytelling, since we are immediately alerted to the fact that this tale is meant to teach us a lesson. It’s a valuable lesson, to be sure, but some of the drama seeps away because it’s no great leap skyward to recognize that no matter the foibles of each of these men, we’re watching heroes in the making. It’s a foregone conclusion that — as summarized by a Pop tune from the ’40s that recurs in several scenes — these guys are going to “straighten up and fly right.” 

Nevertheless, Fly’s story is one that’s important to the evolution of America, and it’s done in this production with such verve and passion that I know audiences will respond.

FLY, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Oct. 5.



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