For a must-see slice of inspiring and gripping African-American history, look no further than New Brunswick for Crossroads Theatre’s marvelous and mesmerizing production of Fly, Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s retelling of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
Fly is told in flashbacks by Chet, one of the airmen. The main characters are four young men whom we meet as they start their training in Tuskegee: Chet (Desmond Newson) from Harlem, W. W. (Brooks Brantly) from Chicago, Oscar (Terrell Wheeler) from Iowa and J. Allen (Damian Thompson) from the West Indies. All four deliver moving and passionate performances through the play’s action-packed 90 minutes (no intermission).
The production incorporates tap dance, poetry, comedy, and visual imagery into a sparse set that enables the actors and script shine. The play’s compelling use of dance as a vehicle for storytelling is personified by Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), whose dazzling and athletic dance percussion acts as the play’s heartbeat, intensifying the drama of each scene in which he appears. Fly could have been a mere history lesson, but the story of this group of pioneering Tuskegee airmen is moving and enlightening right through the final battle scenes.
The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American fighter and bomber pilots who fought in World War II, were trained and educated in Tuskegee, Alabama, and were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. Formally the 332nd Fighter Group, they have become one of the country’s great and oft-told African American success stories. These were men who faced discrimination, segregation, and harsh Jim Crow laws at home, both within and outside the army. Yet their bravery and heroism not only helped win World War II overseas, but also made great headway in the fight against racial injustice at home in the United States.
Their pioneering story is framed in Fly by another historical milestone — the first inauguration of President Obama. Chet, as an older man, is asked how he feels about this momentous day. “History is the river we stand in,” he says. Reflecting on his time in combat, he adds, “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.”
Fly was co-written by Crossroads co-founder and former artistic director Ricardo Kahn, and author and educator Trey Ellis. It was first commissioned in 2005 by the Lincoln Center Institute, and the final version had its world premiere at Crossroads in 2009. The 2016 return of Fly is co-produced by Crossroads Theatre Company and the Pasadena Playhouse. It opened in late January in Pasadena and moved to the New Victory Theater in New York for its off-Broadway premiere March 11-27.
Founded in 1978 by Ricardo Khan and L. Kenneth Richardson, Crossroads Theatre Company (Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, 1999; Sheila’s Day, 1996) embraces the vision that African-American theater is intended for all audiences; to this end, they produce works that enrich and diversify the representation of African American culture on the American stage. In 1999, Crossroads Theatre Company was celebrated with a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, and was the first African American theater to receive this honor. Crossroads has produced over 100 works, many of which were premiere productions by the world’s leading African and African American artists, including August Wilson, Anne Deavere Smith, George C. Wolfe, best-selling novelist Walter Mosley and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Crossroads was a resident theater of The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. They received the National Governors Association Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts and The New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State has designated the theater as a Major Impact Arts Institution.
Fly will be soaring on stage at Crossroads Theatre through April 17. A special discounted show with $10 tickets has been added for the night of Tuesday April 12. Visit www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org for showtimes and ticket information.