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Go West

Performances Enliven Slow-Paced Flyin'

June Thorne (from left), Tennelia Engram, Loretha Myers, and Cheryl Pasteur in Flyin' West

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/21/2001

Flyin' West

Pearl Cleage

Just as the Underground Railroad carried escaped slaves north during the antebellum years, many blacks looked for a better life up North after the Civil War . The African-American population of northern cities swelled in the first few decades of the 20th century, and these uprooted people's experiences, both good and bad, are the stuff of August Wilson plays set in cities such as Pittsburgh. But migration patterns also brought many former slaves and their descendants to the open prairies of the Midwest. Many of us are so accustomed to thinking about black history as a direct line from the rural South to the urban North that the roles of the Midwest and West go unappreciated.

Arena Players is staging a play that helps set the historical record straight. Taking place on the outskirts of the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kan., in 1898, Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West is an educational and highly entertaining account of frontier life from a black perspective. Despite its slow pace, Arena's well-acted production ensures you'll enjoy your stay on the farm.

Flyin' West has so much going for it in terms of great material that it's a shame the play falls well short of greatness. There is a compelling two-hour play buried within the nearly three-hour one Cleage wrote. If she chopped away some of the overly deliberate exposition, whittled down the endlessly repeated thematic statements, and cut to the melodramatic chase, she'd have quite a play. In short, Flyin' West is too long. The one thing it doesn't do is fly.

But even though the play takes its good old time, that's not so bad considering how amusing it can be, for instance, to sit through the opening farmhouse-kitchen banter of Sophie Washington (Cheryl Pasteur) and the elderly Miss Leah (June Thorne). Although there's more jawing than necessary from a dramatic standpoint, this scene is likeable as barbed-yet-loving conversations go. That leisurely opening scene pretty much characterizes the play as a whole--it's chatty, but you keep listening because you gradually learn the life stories of two women who know that the future of their all-black town might be threatened by white land speculators offering to buy them out. Their personal histories are African-American history in microcosm. Miss Leah, for instance, lived through slavery and now relishes her freedom. Sophie represents a generation born to liberty; she is wise in the ways of the world and isn't afraid to back up her opinions with a rifle.

The younger generation of black Kansans is represented by Fannie May Dove (understudy Sandra Meekins, who took the part the night I attended), whose modesty and goodness appeal to the equally shy Will Parrish (Michael Kane). Their tentative courtship will make you smile, even though the playwright milks some of the jokes. When Fannie's sister Minnie Dove Charles (Tennelia Engram) visits from London, where she lives with her poet husband, Frank Charles (Louis B. Murray), the play's melodramatic elements come to a boil. A mulatto who is accepted by cosmopolitan white British society, Frank despises both the countryside he's visiting and its black residents. A light-skinned, slick-haired gent who wants to put his blackness behind him, Frank turns out to be a wife beater and a gambler, and his actions soon have this generally jovial household in an angry uproar. Murray gives the best performance in this production, with sudden shifts from debonair to devilish behavior that make Frank someone you'll love to hate.

Once Frank hits town, Flyin' West finally gains some much-needed momentum. The capable cast, under director Amini Johari Courts, gets into an emotional tizzy as the play picks up steam and heads toward a crowd-pleasing resolution. On the technical side, bungled lighting cues and cumbersome scene changes hurt the pacing, but not enough to keep Flyin' West from hitting home.

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