At the beginning of Pippin
, the Leading Player speaks to the audience and tells them “We have magic to do.” It’s what you hope for every time you see theater. It’s what keeps us acting, directing, designing, dancing and attending, the hope that tonight all the elements will come together and enthrall us, creating a bit of magic in an ordinary world. Last week, the Repertory Theatre of St Louis gave us some magic as they opened Fly
, written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. Fly
tells the story of four members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots who escorted bombers in World War II and it’s the best show I’ve seen on the Rep stage in years.
The Tuskegee Airmen fought for a country that appreciated neither their skill, nor their sacrifice. Not only were they kept separate from their white counterparts; they also endured myriad acts of malice and bigotry from men who were supposed to be on the same side. Ellis and Khan, who also directs, paint the story in broad strokes, the four actors playing the airmen, David Pegram, (Chet Simpkins) Eddie R Brown III, (W.W.) Will Cobbs (Oscar) and Terrell Donnell Sledge (J. Allen) give us moments of intimacy that shade and color the story gorgeously. The white members of the cast, Greg Brostrom, Cary Donaldson and Timothy Sekk express the hatred and narrow-minded malevolence these men endured and eventually, the grudging respect they earned.
Pegram’s Simpkins is young and full of the possibilities of all young men. He does a credible change into his older self attending Obama’s inauguration and marveling at how his journey follows our country’s journey. Brown’s W.W. (or W.W.W.) is all lanky, loose-hipped strut and swagger, alluring in his Zoot suit (my favorite piece of Toni-Leslie James’ costume design) and comical in a flight suit. The differences in the men, the youth from Harlem who just wants to fly, the artful womanizer from Chicago, the stalwart husband and father from Iowa and the young island man looking for his father’s respect, illustrate the journey from “them” to “us.” For them, flying represents recognition, freedom and possibility.
Mostly, the magic is created not by the story itself, but by the way it is told. It is a beautiful piece of art, weaving an innovative, interactive set (created by Beowulf Boritt) and lights (co-designed by Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot) with actors who soar through the air without ever leaving their Eames navy chairs and one, extraordinarily talented dancer, Omar Edwards, who plays the Tap Griot, the otherworldly being who embodies all the frustration, humiliation, insecurity and, finally, joy, the airmen are unable to express in their repressive military world. Edwards shines, his dancing is glorious, his ability to portray emotions through dance, exceptional.
Normally I find ninety minute plays to be about an hour of substance (the part that will be made into a 45 minute TV show) and thirty minutes of excess. These ninety minutes almost feel as if it could be longer, crafting more nuances into the strokes, but the beauty of the piece is the energy and drive it has and likely that could not be sustained through an intermission. It’s a passionate play and ends in a true standing ovation, not a St Louis meandering to your feet, but an honest leap from the seats. You only see a handful of those in a lifetime in the theater. At the end, Fly
leaves you wanting more, and that’s always good.
Fly continues at the Loretto Hilton through November 10th. Don’t miss the magic.