Theatre review: 'Fly' takes Tuskegee Airmen and audience to new heights

For the News-DemocratOctober 24, 2013 

The inspiring triumph of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first African-American military airmen, during World War II is the focus of the drama, "Fly," that dazzles with its derring-do in technical achievements.

On The Rep's nearly bare stage are severe metal chairs and other sparse furnishing to frame scenes set in military barracks and training sessions at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, at Ramitelli Air Base in Italy, and later in warplane cockpits over Berlin.

But the jaw-dropping magic is above, where five screen panels, hung high, become our viewpoint into the wild blue yonder. This is where the play's imagination soars, and we are thrust into cloud-dappled skies where the Allies' planes wage battle above Europe. This is where ordinary men became extraordinary heroes, answering their country's call of duty the summer of 1943, despite the era's racism.

Up in the air is where the play's Tuskegee Airmen characters, as part of the 332nd Fighter Group, display bravery and fortitude, and must show others that they have the right stuff for the mission. But to get to that courageous juncture, they are mercilessly tested on the ground. While they deal with segregation, and questions about their skills and smarts, there are internal skirmishes that just get in the way of preparation and being on equal footing with others in the squadron.

Every play needs conflict, and this is where we learn of their struggles and their desire to serve, for they had much to prove. We already are aware, to a certain extent, of their heroics, which comes out in Washington, D.C., scenes from the recent past, when they are finally honored at President Obama's inauguration. The screens show a video history lesson, too, so that the audience can get the full scope of their accomplishments.

Playwrights Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis tell their pursuit-of-excellence story in a lean style, and with a 90-minute running time without an intermission, they basically cut to the chase (Khan also directed). The play received its world premiere in 2009, and The Rep's production is its regional debut.

Of the hundreds of pilots trained as Tuskegee Airmen, they sharpen their points on four. They have also added a unique element -- The Tap Griot, which is a contemporary dreadlocked Omar Edwards punctuating the story's emotions through interpretive tap dance. This is based on a West African storyteller technique, and it's intriguing and effective, if sometimes a tad distracting. Think Savion Glover-style tap ("Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk"), and you have an idea.

The four black actors are a tight ensemble, with David Pegram as Chet Simpkins, Eddie R. Brown III as the comedic W.W., Will Cobbs as Oscar and Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen. Greg Brostrom is a tough racist Captain O'Hurley, while Timothy Sekk and Cary Donaldson play several roles, including bomber co-pilots who ultimately respect their fellow airmen, and officers.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, projection designer Clint Allen, and co-lighting designers Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot have taken us to a window on the world we've never been, and it's a stunning achievement.

For some, the show is highly emotional, and for the audience, the loud cheering and enthusiastic ovation indicated they had been touched by the power of this fitting tribute.

What: "Fly"

Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis

When: Today through Nov. 10 (for times, go to repstl.org)

Tickets: Call 314-968-4925 or go online to repstl.org

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