African-American frontier heroines set the course in 'Flyin' West'

September 16, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Pearl Cleage's play, "Flyin' West," is based on an often overlooked chapter of American history -- the period after the Civil War when African-American homesteaders created all-black frontier towns. Specifically, this unusual and rousing drama focuses on some of the lesser-known figures in that chapter -- the black women who braved racism and sexism to stake claims in these settlements.

The result is a script full of strong, challenging roles for actresses, and those challenges are well met by the cast of the Crossroads Theatre Company production, currently at Kennedy Center, under the direction of Ricardo Khan.

Essentially a melodrama, replete with long passages of exposition, the script is rather creaky. But the form fits the play's late-19th-century setting. And, this is melodrama with a significant difference. Although the play is peopled with such stock characters as a Snidely Whiplash-style villain and a damsel in distress, the day is saved by heroines -- not heroes.

The action takes place in the Nicodemus, Kan., home of Sophie Washington and Fannie Dove, who left the discrimination of the South to face the hardships of pioneer life in a place where, as they proclaim in a shared ritual, they can "declare our lives to be our own." They've also forged a surrogate family of women, whose matriarch, Miss Leah, was born a slave and became one of the first settlers of Nicodemus.

In the course of the play, two events threaten the difficult but happy life of these women. First, they are visited by Fannie's younger sister, Minnie, and her husband, Frank, who have been living in London. Second, off-stage white speculators are trying to buy the black settlers' property.

Frank establishes himself as the villain early on, when he announces, "I've seen about all the Negroes I need to see in this lTC life." His villainy, however, includes more than verbal discrimination against his own people; Cleage is clearly drawing a parallel between this abusive man and the abuses of slavery.

Though Frank verges on being two-dimensional, actor Count Stovall manages to suggest what attracted impressionable Minnie. More importantly, Cleage uses evil Frank to illuminate the play's stalwart women characters.

The most stalwart of all is shotgun-toting Sophie, portrayed by Baltimore native Trazana Beverley with so much grit that at times she seems close to a caricature. The frontier, however, was a place where people could re-invent themselves, and if Beverley's broad-striding, pipe-smoking Sophie at times seems overdone, it perhaps because she has let nothing stand in the way of becoming the heroine of her own life.

As innocent Minnie, Erika L. Heard elicits respect as well as compassion. Denise Burse and Ronald William Lawrence imbue the characters of Fannie and her sweetheart, Wil, with decency as well as the fortitude it took to survive on the frontier. And, as Miss Leah, Ruby Dee is a convincingly wise elder, but she occasionally allows her character's frailty to compete with her compelling storytelling.

"Flyin' West" may be a historical drama, but one reason it makes such effective theater is that its themes of bigotry and physical abuse are, regrettably, still topical. Despite her often heavy-handed melodramatic format, Cleage doesn't overstate this relevance. Yet when the opening night audience cheered the play's affirmative speeches, those cheers weren't merely for people who lived long ago and far away.

"Flyin' West"

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Oct. 9

Tickets: $30-$37.50

Call: 1 (800) 444-1324

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