Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan's innovative play Fly is receiving its Washington, DC premiere at the historical Ford's Theatre, a fitting venue to explore how racial issues influenced the Tuskegee Airmen's experience in training for and flying combat aircraft in World War II. Mounted as part of the multi-year Lincoln Legacy Project, this production is perhaps one of the strongest attempts to chronicle the men's journeys and their indelible impact on American military history, both from a political and social standpoint. Under the direction of Ricardo Khan, a cohesive and talented ensemble cast of eight brings this well-known story to life. When this excellent acting is coupled with strong video elements and the unexpected use of tap dancing, the production becomes a must-see. It's simply one of the strongest that Ford's has presented in recent memory.
The very strong, concise, and well-structured script focuses on how four young African American men from diverse backgrounds- Chet Simpkins, W.W., Oscar, and J. Allen- form a bond through a shared love of flying as they enter the very white world of the US military in the 1940s as part of a less-than-tolerated (by some, if not many) experiment in racial integration. All four members later contribute to the success of the Allied Forces against the German and Japanese enemies in that horrific war. Their fellow white airmen learn a lesson in tolerance and the necessity for collaboration and cooperation, and reliance on others in conflict environments. The Tuskegee men, likewise, learn a variety of personal and professional lessons as they face grave dangers in providing aircraft cover for bombers in hostile air environments. A dancer, dressed also like a military man, is used to express the men's emotions and inner-conflicts as they take this unprecedented journey. The ensemble cast tasked with conveying this powerful story is uniformly excellent.
Broadway's Omar Edwards (Tap Griot) demonstrates flawless tap skills and an unbelievable intensity as he communicates the Tuskegee unit's individual and collective emotions about the hand that has been dealt. With just the movement of his body, he can communicate more anger and sadness than most people can with words. He makes it clear that sometimes there are no words to describe particular situations and the effect that he has on the success of this production cannot be overstated.
Christopher Wilson, Eric Berryman, Mark Hairston, and Damian Thompson go to great lengths, from the beginning of the show to the end, to highlight each of the Airmen's individual personalities and use that background to illuminate why their specific experiences occurred as it did. The strongest scenes are when the men are engaging with each other- whether out of love or hate. The camaraderie and brotherhood is very much believable in moments of fun and despair.
James Konicek, Matt Bassett, and Clark Young perform multiple supporting roles as military leaders, instructors, and bomber pilots. Bassett and Young display good emotional range as they prepare for an intense airstrike over Berlin and must rely on the Tuskegee unit to provide cover. This series of scenes start out with several strong comedic moments, but moments later, when the situation turns less than ideal, their portrayal of fear, loss, and sudden realization of what's important in life, is also nuanced and effective. Koniceck has a strong acting moment as one of the men's less than sympathetic instructors. Konicek's take on one of the men's first flying instructors is appropriate for an aggravated hardened military man with a sense of mission and duty, but one that is less than amused with the task he's been handed. His teaching moments are among the most compelling in the play as it sets the tone for the tumultuous emotional journey the men and their colleagues take as they hone their intricate air skills, which will later be put to the test.
The production elements contribute greatly to the innovative approach of telling this compelling story. Hope Clarke's choreography is exhilarating, demanding, purposeful and rhythmic. John Gromada's original, patriotic music reminds the audience of the time period and is appropriately authentic as is Toni-Leslie James' costume design. His sound design is also effective in capturing the sounds of war and Rui Rita's lighting design likewise assists in creating the intense environment in which the men are operating. Beowulf Boritt's minimal scenic design allows the focus to center on the story and the good use of large and strategically placed video screens allows Clint Allen's varied projections to establish time and place. His projections simulating what the men see as they fly over hostile nations are detailed and realistic and are among the design highlights of this production.