*They call him ‘The Tap Grio.’
It’s important that you know who he is. This figure plays an important role in the history of The Tuskegee Airmen. And it is he that audiences will see soon after the curtain rises in the production of ‘Fly’, which had its West Coast premiere at The Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California on Sunday.
The Tap Grio uses no words to communicate what the Tuskegee Airmen are feeling. Their frustration. Despair. Joy and sorrow is communicated via the rhythm of his feet. On any given day. At any given time.
He just taps.
It is he who in many instances will confirm the mood of the room.
On this night a full-capacity audience piled into the beautiful Pasadena Playhouse to witness the highly anticipated production of FLY, written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. The play takes place in the summer of 1943, during WWII and we see four colored men as they say goodbye to their loved ones and board a train from Tuskegee, Alabama. They will eventually head to the Ramitelli Air Base in Southern, Italy, and fight this war until it ends in 1945.
En route is a ‘ladies man’ from Chicago who talks more sh*t than any law would allow; a young man who wants to fly to protect his country so badly that he risks a lie to get enrolled, a “this is for my people!” father-to-be, and a British-West Indies born colored man with unmatched arrogance.
We really get to know (and care for) these men throughout the 90-minute, no intermission production; which had eight original Tuskegee Airmen in the audience. It is important to note here that as of today less than 200 of the 1,000 aviation graduates are still with us. These men in attendance were awarded a Proclamation by the City of Pasadena; which was read by the city’s Mayor, Terry Tornek.
This was followed by a four-minute standing ovation.
But one must first know or be reminded of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. A select group of men, some college grads, some not, but all highly intelligent who were accepted into the U. S. Army’s Pilot Training Program in July 1941 at the segregated Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. It is a story that is so under-rated and has been embarrassingly passed over 364 days of the year; but comes to life during Black History Month.
These World War II pilots went through HELL to prove their worthiness at a time when colored people were seen (and treated) as animals. They endured unjust punishment from hateful, racist and jealous “superiors” — many of whom were less qualified than themselves. And as the director of FLY, Ricardo Khan, so eloquently states, “Facing all odds and against the backdrop of an America heatedly divided by race and prejudice, they chose to fight in a world war for human freedoms to which they themselves were not even fully entitled.”
This production is a splendid replica that I believe all of the Tuskegee Airmen would be proud of.
But if you think for one minute it is only a series of sad reminders, all I can say is…
Though the historical truths of the Tuskegee Airmen’s story is anything but funny; Ellis and Khan do allow us to glimpse inside the individual personalities of these gentlemen, and we are in stitches at times because of it. Doubled over in laughter as we witness their antics behind the scenes; when its “only them” and the mean “Capt. O’Hurley” (played with more than sufficient bite by Anthony J. Goes) is nowhere around.
When two of the pilots have a disagreement and come to blows, audiences will laugh out loud at their turnabout when O’Hurley walks in unexpectedly. And when two white pilots (played expertly by Ross Cowan as “Shaw” and Brandon Nagle as “Reynolds”) can no longer deny the valuable attributes of their fellow pilots, laughter is the only outburst we can muster for their acquiescence.
As “W.W.” Brooks Brantley, the crap-talking Chicago ladies’ man is both charming and funny. And Terrell Wheeler’s anything for my people “Oscar” character is immediately endearing. As the “Tap Grio” Omar Edwards’ skill is undeniable. And though few artist desire comparisons, he should take it as the highest compliment that he makes us recall the irrepressible style of Savion Glover. Damian Thompson’s “J. Allen” with all his British West Indian arrogance is a keeper!
On March 29, 2007 all of the estimated 19,000 persons who participated in the “Tuskegee Experience” during 1941 to 1949 known as the “Tuskegee Airmen” received the Congress Gold Medal in a ceremony held inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda by then-President George W. Bush.
And in 2009, they were invited guests at the Inauguration of first black president, Barack Obama. And it is “Chet” (played with heart by Desmond Newsome) the youngest of the pilots, who gets to respond to the question asked by a reporter on the U. S. Capital Steps at that ceremony …
How do you feel?
And the heavy weight behind his answer is felt by everyone with a pulse.
With the obviously astute technical direction of Brad Enlow, the simple yet exquisite scenic design of FLY (loved those skies!!!) comes by way of Beowulf Boritt, who truly makes us feel we are inside a fighter plane. And the imagery in Clint Allen’s projection design effectively transports us to historical landmarks forever etched in the minds of black Americans — not to mention a war most of us never experienced (we felt that hit!). The lighting design by Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot so very effectively created and distinguished the various moods of any given time; and my, my, my, those sounds…Mr. John Gromada. We were there, you hear me? We heard those planes for real!
And the tight, no-holds-barred direction of Tony-award-winning Ricardo Khan makes 90-minutes feel more like 60. No frayed edges!
Beautifully choreographed by Hope Clarke, with great costumes by Toni-Leslie James, FLY at The Pasadena Playhouse is a MUST-SEE! And you will be moved!
In this time of still unbridled and seemingly unrelenting racial inequity; where artists are fighting to be recognized for their work (#oscarssowhite), and people of African descent in the 2016 United States of America are being gunned down in the streets or dying mysteriously behind bars as if their lives don’t matter (#blacklivesmatter), FLY forces us to recall a time when demonstrations of hate was out-loud-legal; and no accountability by the perpetrators was the norm.
FLY had its world premiere at the Crossroads Theatre Company on October 1, 2009 (Richardo Khan co-founded the theatre in 1978), and it now has its West Coast premiere at The Pasadena Playhouse beginning January 31.
The production will run through February 21.
Playing: Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m.
Schedule: Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
***No 7:00 p.m. performance Sunday, February 7***
Prices: $25.00 to $77.00 plus premium seating at $125.00
Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena CA 91101
Tickets: Online sales and information: PasadenaPlayhouse.org
In Person: On non-performance dates, the Box Office is open Tuesday – Sunday from 1:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. On performance dates, the Box Office is open Tuesday – Saturday from 1:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Sunday
***Stay tuned for DeBorah B. Pryor’s very enlightening interview with the cast of FLY, director Ricardo Khan, and widow and cancer-survivor, Joan Williams, in the days to come.
About the author: DeBorah B. Pryor is a senior editor, trainer, and resident theatre critic at Electronic Urban Report. She is a tenured, former actor with 4A union status and has run a small business as a Associate with LegalShield since 2012. She has taught public speaking and communication classes at UCLA and private agencies throughout Southern, California. She writes children’s books in her not-so-spare time. Reach out to her at [email protected]om