PICKSINSIX Review: FLYIN' WEST
SO DELICIOUS IT WILL KILL YOU.
There is a riveting moment deep within Chuck Smith’s American Blues Theater production of the 1992 Pearl Cleage play “Flyin’ West,” now playing at Stage 773, when Fannie Dove (Sydney Charles) chides her older sister, Sophie Washington (Tiffany Oglesby) for taking matters into her own hands. As unhinged rage spews out from Oglesby, tears well up in the eyes of both women. Smith has already allowed us to see firsthand what they can only imagine, witnesses to the raw fear and inhuman reality of physical abuse. Now it is our heart pounding turn to feel the sister’s pain and anger.
It is then that Miss Leah, the extraordinary Joslyn Jones in a powerhouse performance, steps up to calmly talk the women away from their first option to protect and defend their younger sister, Minnie Dove Charles (Tiffany Renee Johnson) from her abusive wretch of a husband, Frank (Wardell Julius Clark). We already know that another option is to have the well-meaning neighbor Will Parish (Henri Watkins), who is sweet on Fannie, deliver some ‘plains justice’ to Frank. The third option, however, offered up in one of Miss Leah’s many empowering recollections of her harrowing life experience, is so delicious it will kill you.
As background to this play set in 1898, the Homestead Act of 1862 offered large tracts of land in the western frontier that provided opportunities for tens of thousands of African American men, women and children to resettle by the late 1870s and the decades that followed. While many of the first settlers were ill-prepared for their new lives, the women at the heart of Cleage’s “Flyin’ West,” each represent a unique cultural heritage. They have settled in Nicodemus, Kansas, a boom town for those African Americans who escaped the oppression of the post-Reconstruction South. The free and safe haven the women have created and relentlessly protect is being threatened by land speculators who are moving in. The most urgent concern is the safety and well-being of a family member who is the victim of domestic violence.
An unseen character is brought to life in searing detail by Miss Leah, the 70 year-old former slave, in brilliant images of sorrowful indignity and uplifting grace that, as she states, can’t be written down. Scenes of inexplicable rage and violence, however, churn this emotional drama. The suffocating Jim Crow bias that riles up in Frank’s vile attitudes are challenged by Sophie’s strength and Fannie’s resolve to stamp his kind out of their family.
Cleage has expertly embodied an unwavering strength of will in Miss Leah and Sophie, hopefulness in Fannie, and decency in Will, but Minnie’s soul-soaked anguish and survival is truly heartwrenching.
Grant Sabin’s western plains interior design is well-suited for Lily Grace Walls period-perfect costumes and the rich lighting design by Jared Goodling. American Blues Theater has produced a fine online Backstage Guide which provides resources for victims of domestic abuse, background history and information about the production development, and a feature on the cultural movement #BlackGirlMagic.
AMERICAN BLUES THEATER
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by Chuck Smith
through November 3rd
1225 West Belmont