The production “Fly” follows four Tuskegee Airmen—the first African-American aviators in the U.S. military—from their initial squad training and education and through the often thinly veiled racist oppression by their superior officers, their comrades and even their subordinates. But the play also largely focuses on their bonding as a team and as men of mission, their triumphs as fighter pilots, and their losses in wartime.
Nearly 450 students, staff and veterans went in solidarity to see the Pasadena Playhouse production of “Fly,” both to enjoy as part of Black History Month and to participate in the evening’s Talkback portion of the show last week.
Stylized with a minimal setting, the production of “Fly” successfully utilizes light, sound and visuals to convey all the necessary backdrop needed to push the imagination into high gear. A pointedly unique, strong, and integral feature to the play is provided by dancer and “improvographer” Omar Edwards.
Edwards, as “Tap Griot,” both literally and figuratively uniquely taps into the repressed anger, pride, and unbridled joy in achievement—a mixed bag of emotions which often cannot be outwardly expressed by the airmen—through improvised tap dance.
Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan based their play on the stories of all the men who, as airmen, served, survived, and lived full lives long enough to witness the first election and inauguration of African-American two-term president Barack Obama.
As part of his curriculum, PCC professor Dr. Christopher Jimenez y West is using the production of “Fly” as a primer for his 40-50 students who attended, where he plans to incorporate the history and experiences of the airmen featured in the play, as well as the overall relationship of African-Americans in U.S. military history.
“It’s an underlying theme that I have been doing for the last three years in my curriculum … In about four weeks we are actually going to [talk about] the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Jimenez y West. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the production [of Fly], and it was extraordinary.”
“Fly” was not only inspired by the history, but through the wisdom and experience of 92-year-old Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, a surviving Tuskegee Airman.
“This is a story from our history that was truly a shining example of humanity and what it would be if—in spite of the adversity and in spite of the walls and the doors that are closed on us—that we could break through them through the pursuit of excellence,” said playwright and director Khan, who credits Dr. Brown as an advisor to the project.
Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, who has previously worked with Khan, was keen to point out the differences between this production and that of the 1995 film The Tuskegee Airmen.
“What was most appealing to me was the way that Ric [Khan] has chosen to tell this story,” said Epps. “He’s not trying to emulate the movie that was done—and done very well before—but is using all his stagecraft … and his wonderful choreographer, Hope Clark, to really theatricalize the telling of this great story.”
Empowered by the production of “Fly,” students and staff stayed for the “talkback” to field questions to a panel of PCC student veterans on their experiences, and to the actors and artists who participated.
“One of the big issues that I thought that came up with this whole play was basically how these soldiers were underestimated just by their appearance,” said PCC student veteran Tracy Cooper-Harris. “What does a veteran look like? We are as diverse as the entire nation—this entire country—and that’s what makes us great.”
“Fly” runs through this Sunday, Feb. 21, with Tuesday through Friday evening performances at 8 p.m., Saturday performances at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.