“Fly” is one of those stories that the history books ignored for far too long. Now that the story is known, we cannot seem to get enough of it. We are still fascinated despite books, TV shows, a George Lucas produced movie, and now a play at Ford’s Theater.
The play is inspired by the real life story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a band of African American fighter pilots who served with great distinction during World War II. The story is a heroic one, but also dripping with irony. While the Airmen were winning medals fighting for freedom, they still lived in a heavily segregated America that denied them so many of those freedoms.
At first I was worried that “Fly” was going to be a typical war play – and then relieved that in many ways it was a typical war play. We meet a group of pilots just as they enter training. The questions immediately become obvious: will some or all of these men make it through the rigorous training, and will some or all survive the war and make it home.
The script by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan (who also directed) in many ways gives us the archetypal tropes of every war drama – the demanding drill sergeant and the endless monotony of boot camp, followed by the men proving themselves in actual combat. The historical and social resonances of these particular recruits makes the story fresh, but the play does not hammer you over the head with the message. In other words – this production is an exciting war story; it is not a lecture.
And yet that message is there. Sometimes it is obvious – the shock of other fighters meeting a Black regiment or the recruits going to a bar, but not allowed to enter via the front door. Other times the discrimination is less obvious – while the recruits are all African American, none of their instructors are. But that is most poisonous part of discrimination: it is always there, even if it only occasionally erupts onto the surface.
But director Khan and his talented technical team do not belabor the point. They want to get us into the sky as soon as possible, and use a slew of theatrical tricks to let us share that experience. Set designer Beowulf Boritt gives us a mostly bare stage with a set of panels form a large arch, which is used for Clint Allen’s projected images of blue skies and shifting clouds.
Add to that the sound design of John Gromada and the vivid lighting design of Rui Rita, plus the occasional fog effect, and it really does feel we are up in the clouds, even though the actors are usually seated in chairs.
The four main actors – Eric Berryman, Mark Hairston, Damien Thompson, and Christopher Wilson – play the main recruits and they are all good as we follow their careers from initial training to the war experience. Each one begins as something of a caricature, such as the naïve rural boy or streetwise city slicker with his zoot suit, but the actors gradually flesh out these roles into three dimensional human beings.
The supporting cast members are all good but special attention should be given to Omar Edwards in the unique role as a Tap Griot. It is a role with very little dialogue, but one cannot call it a silent role. By using dancing and movement, Edwards portrays the emotions that the main characters are often feeling, but are keeping in check due to personal or military restraints.
Unlike some overlooked history lessons, recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen came late but fortunately not too late. On opening night, there were several surviving members in attendance. It pointed out another lesson that was strangely overlooked in this play: the Airmen returned home to a still highly segregated America, but their experiences helped lay the groundwork for the major social changes that would follow in the succeeding decades.
“Fly” continues at Ford’s Theater through October 21. The play is 90 minutes long without intermission. For more information, call 202-347-4833 or go online tohttp://www.fordstheatre.org/.
By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic