Review: “Flyin’ West”

Tiffany Oglesby, Sydney Charles, Joslyn Jones in “Flyin’ West”. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: American Blues Theater at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Nov. 3
Tickets: $19-$39
Phone: 773-654-3103

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” explores a frequently neglected chapter of American history and is a good choice to begin a season dedicated to “home sweet home,” but American Blues Theater’s production suffers from a couple of serious flaws.

Commissioned and premiered by the Alliance Theatre in 1992, Cleage’s first play focuses on a group of African-American women who, spurred by the Homestead Act of 1862 and eager to escape the South’s racism and Jim Crow laws, migrated west after the Civil War and settled in the virtually all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, founded in 1877. The action is set in 1898, by which time the town had experienced a number of ups and towns, and the forces at work included white developers eager to buy up land even at inflated prices.

The action takes place outside of town at the homestead Sophie Washington (Tiffany Oglesby) shares with her adoptive sister, Fannie Dove (Sydney Charles). Since winter is approaching, they’re also hosting Miss Leah (Joslyn Jones), an elderly former slave who came with the first wave of settlers and has a zillion stories to tell (and a moving monologue about the horrors of slavery).

The long, rather schematic setup establishes the differences among these women and would become tedious were it not for the engaging performances. Oglesby’s statuesque Sophie is the strong, fiercely independent, gun-toting sister who spearheaded the move west, views property ownership as the key to freedom, and doesn’t take bull from anyone. She’s trying to get the town to pass a law that would prevent white speculators from buying up land.

Charles’ gentler, flower-loving Fannie, who is writing a histoy of Nicodemus, laments the limited cultural possibilities on the prairie but is willing to make the best of things. She sees everyone in a good light and is the peace-keeper in the family. She also is being subtly courted by neighbor Wil Parish (Henri Watkins), a kindly man who mends fences unasked and would do anything for her. She likes him, too

Despite her apparent frailty, Jones’ Miss Leah is a tough, feisty survivor who’s weathered countless tragedies – among them the loss of 15 babies, 10 of them sold into slavery, the other five to illness after she was free – and has become a source of wisdom and advice (not always welcome) for the others. She also has a killer apple pie recipe that precipitates the climax leading to a satisfying conclusion that reinforces the fortitude and empowerment of women, a message that’s as timely today as … well, ever.

But, before that, the melodrama kicks into full gear with the arrival of the youngest sister, Minnie Dove Charles (Tiffany Renee Johnson, lively yet vulnerable), and her poet husband, Frank Charles (Wardell Julius Clark), to celebrate Minnie’s 21st birthday. They’ve come from London, where they’ve been living the high life in Frank’s anticipation of inheriting a large sum from his recently deceased white father.

All is not well, however. A self-loathing mulatto who hates black people and often passes for white, Frank gambles, drinks, and abuses his wife, both verbally and physically. He even tells the white men he tries to impress that she’s a whore he won in a card game.  He’s the villain of the play, and when his inheritance falls through, his behavior becomes so abusive it’s hard to believe Minnie’s continued protestations of love for him. It’s also telegraphed: As soon as we learn that Sophie intends to give Minnie the deed to one-third of the land as a birthday gift, we know that Frank is going to try to get his hands on it and sell it to speculators.

The worst problem, though, is that Clark is seriously miscast. Not only is he saddled with one of the worst wigs I’ve seen on stage, he simply couldn’t pass as white anytime or anywhere. This destroys the credibility of the drama, no matter how nice it is to see such an evil person get his comeuppance.

Director Chuck Smith’s staging also has some shortcomings. Grant Sabin’s scenic design seems to force the actors to stand in a horizontal line much of the time. Jared Gooding’s lighting doesn’t capture the different times of day all that well. Rick Sims sound design remains something of a mystery; for example, in the opening scene we hear the wind howling across the plains, but the house’s door and screen door don’t budge from it’s force, and no one moves to close them, either. Later on, barnyard noises come and go for no apparent reason. Most of Lily Grace Walls’ costumes are more-or-less apropos, though Minnie’s London hat looks like it comes from a costume house rather than a proper shop.

All in all, “Flyin’ West” is a play worth reviving, but I wish American Blues Theatre had been able to minimize its flaws rather than reinforcing them.