History is given a warm theatrical salute in "Fly," a tap-dance-infused drama that tells the story of a group of Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Army Air Corps fighters who helped break down the color barrier in the military through their excellence, bravery and willingness to lay down their lives for a country that still treated them like second-class citizens.
The show, which opened Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse, is marked by a generosity of spirit as it follows the journey of four ambitious young men chosen to take part in the highly selective flight training school in Tuskegee, Ala., at the peak of World War II. The color of their skin is presumed by their white commanding officer to disqualify them from being elite airmen, but this only hardens their determination to prove their personal and patriotic mettle.
Written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, "Fly" personalizes the history through a traditional biographical setup but broadens the focus through a production that incorporates not only dance and poetry but documentary visual imagery along with plenty of shots of open sky.
The switching of registers between the straightforward dramatic storyline and this more poetic theatrical context has a few awkward moments in the beginning, but Khan's staging grows in confidence and fluidity once the men are airborne.
The year is 1943. The U.S. is at war with Germany and Japan, but at home a different battle is underway — the battle for civil rights, a long and difficult struggle that's especially explosive in the Jim Crow South.
Serving as a kind of spirit guide is Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), a Savion Glover-style tapper who uses the percussion sound of his shoes to intensify the pressure-cooker feeling of the airmen and the raging horror of combat that awaits them.
"Fly" has a restless energy that doesn't want to remain earthbound. The writing may not similarly soar — the dramatic introduction of the four trainees is more efficient than artful — but the action moves at a nice clip even when taxiing down the runway.
W.W. (Brooks Brantly) is a strutting ladies' man from Chicago's South Side, educated at Howard University and dressed in zoot suit style. Oscar (Terrell Wheeler), an Iowa country boy who went to Morehouse College, describes himself as "a no-nonsense race man. Anything and everything for my people."
J. Allen (Damian Thompson), a dignified and genial chap from the British West Indies, brings a touch of class to the barracks. Chet (Desmond Newson), the baby of the bunch, hails from Harlem and precociously learned to fly while working as a flight-obsessed janitor in Long Island's Roosevelt Field.
Their pioneering story is framed by another historical milestone: the first inauguration of President Obama. Chet, as an older man, is asked early on how he, a Tuskegee airman, feels about this momentous day.
"History is the river we stand in," he says with retrospective wisdom. At the time he was making history, however, Chet acknowledges, "We were all so young and none of us had any idea to where or how far its current would take us.... We just knew, each and every single one of us, that we had one dream, to be a flier."
The heavy of "Fly" is Capt. O'Hurley (Anthony J. Goes), the bitter white Boston bully who calls his pupils George after the derogatory nickname of porters on George Pullman trains. "But I am not a porter!" J. Allen objects, but he's advised not to argue with a racist who believes it would be more patriotic for these officer candidates to drop out of flight school than bungle the war effort with their inexperience and ineptitude.
O'Hurley, however, can't help being impressed by their rapid progress. Sponges for learning and too proud to concede defeat, these black cadets surpass the statistical expectation that only one of them will succeed. Success, however, moves them to a more deadly challenge — providing cover for other pilots on some of the most dangerous missions of the war.
Because of the nature of the historical material, the rudimentary dramatic outline is less of a drawback than it might otherwise be. If the playwriting isn't always especially sophisticated, it has the virtues of being intelligently distilled and briskly delivered.
The characterizations are writ large. Each is individually contoured, but the weight of history works against too much subtlety. The four actors are at their most effective when singing a military song or marching in stylish lockstep. (Hope Clarke's choreography gives "Fly" a welcome tail wind.)
The production, on a clean set by Beowulf Boritt that transforms readily into the inside of fighter plane, is jazzed up by geometric screens upon which Clint Allen's projections kaleidoscopically depict the civil rights struggle at home and the war abroad. John Gromada ratchets up the intensity with a thrilling sound design.
"Fly" might be best appreciated as a vibrantly executed historical exhibit. But the story of this group of Tuskegee airmen is ultimately as moving as it is enlightening.
The real-life Tuskegee airmen in attendance at Sunday's opening performance were acknowledged with a standing ovation. These men have a double legacy: They not only helped save the free world but they advanced the cause of racial justice in a democracy still struggling to live up to its highest ideals.