Although a bit hyperbolic at times, Pearl Cleage's period drama, "Flyin' West," now at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, is nonetheless a ripping good yarn that excites our sympathies throughout.
The action transpires in the historical setting of Nicodemus, Kansas – an all-black enclave that was settled in the aftermath of the Civil War, as freed slaves fled the atrocities of the Jim Crow south.
It's here that feisty, gun-toting Sophie (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel) has settled with her demure adoptive sister, Fannie (Leilani Smith). A proud landowner, Sophie is trying to pass a law that would stop white speculators from buying up land in the area.
But when another sister, Minnie (Aisha D. Benton), a third-owner of the farm, returns from London with her overbearing husband, Frank (Dylan Mooney), Sophie finds that the true menace lies, not from invading outsiders, but from her own brother-in-law, a self-hating black man who won't hesitate to sell out his wife's birthright.
The design elements – particularly JR Bruce's exactingly detailed set – are the perfect setting for this gripping period drama. Director Saundra McClain and a crackling cast hard-sell this emotionally-charged story, sometimes to a fault. Mooney in particular stops just short of moustache-twirling. Yet Mooney also tempers Frank's villainy with the pitiable frustration of an ambitious man held back by the color of his skin.
VandenHeuvel is mesmerizing as the gruff and intrepid Sophie, a performance well-balanced by Smith's thoughtful, gentle turn. As Miss Leah, Robin Braxton cunningly underplays her character, a former slave whose history of past atrocities seems even more striking, given the old-shoes pragmatism of Braxton's performance.
Boise Holmes radiates trustworthiness and strength as Wil, the bluff cowboy who is sweet on Miss Fannie. And although not pitch perfect, McClain's staging solidly serves up this fictionalized peek into a fascinating corner of African American history.
"Flyin' West," International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 6. $42-$47. (562) 436-4610. www.InternationalCityTheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.