February 21, 2014

‘Flyin’ West’ through African-American history

Davidson Community Players rises to the challenge of Pearl Cleage’s play about 19th-century pioneers.

I was gratified and saddened to see that the Davidson Community Players’ playbill for “Flyin’ West” contained an explanation of Jim Crow laws.

“Gratified” because we’ve come so far from segregation that we have to explain the history of racism to people under 50. “Saddened” because there’s work to do, as Pearl Cleage’s play suggests. Though it’s set in 1898 in Nicodemus, Kan., a town settled by blacks leaving the Reconstruction-era South, it’s not purely a history piece.

Cleage pays homage to folks who went west four generations ago with shotguns, plows, patience and dreams. She also deals with problems we still see: white-on-black racism, black-on-black racism, spousal abuse, willingness to give up the security of property for a pocketful of fleeting dollars.

The play works best when the four female characters speak straightforwardly about their lives, less well when the irredeemable male villain opens his sneering mouth. This character spews bile, menaces his childlike wife and mocks the aspirations of his in-laws in every insulting speech.

Frank Charles has married Minnie (Veda Covington), youngest sister of the pioneering Dove family. Fannie (Stephanie McInnes) is content in Nicodemus and warming up to hardworking Wil Parrish (Michael Connor). Sophie (Andrea Michele), whom the family took in long ago, has grand plans for her adopted town.

Matriarchal Miss Leah (Karen Abercrombie) grounds them all with stories of youthful days as a slave. Miss Leah, who was once property herself, urges Sophie to make sure black settlers hang onto their property and remain independent of white speculators. Frank wants the family to sell its land and finance his and Minnie’s life in a big city.

Frank, the son of a black mother and a slave-owning white father who never admitted patrimony, is crippled mostly by self-loathing. He has passed for white so long (and counted on inheriting money from his white dad) that he can’t bear to be around blacks. He wants to escape not just rural life but his own heritage, and this idea has poisoned his marriage and relationships.

He seems more a plot device than a person; it’s no reflection on actor Brandon Samples that Frank remains a caricature. Yet even Frank can speak cruel truth. When he tells Sophie he could become a potent influence for evil in Nicodemus, he asks, “You ever see a group of colored people that didn’t put the lightest one in charge?”

Director Sidney Horton has mined the play for all its emotional reality – it has plenty, when the women speak – and used small Armour Street Theatre well. His cast rewards him with solid performances and one that’s remarkable: Abercrombie’s Miss Leah, whose lifetime of suffering has bent but never broken her. Her trembling hands and pursed lips show physical frailty, but she’s the strongest of these pioneers.

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