All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The characters are sitting in simple faux metal chairs, the kind you can find at any Target or Staples, but they are miming tricky arm and hand maneuvers associated with controlling an airplane, swaying and tensing as if fighting air currents and gravity, barking commands, issuing assurances of their support, saying prayers, and mouthing curses, all while engaged in the battle of, and a battle for, their lives.
The scene I’m describing is fraught with apprehension and suspense. The men depicted are American pilots in pitched conflict with Nazi adversaries in the closing days of World War II. The confrontation we see is for the domination of the German capital, Berlin. We have seen the men train, we have seen them overcome obstacles in their course of becoming fighter pilots, and we have come to care about them deeply, so much that we are as invested in their personal safety and survival as we are with the critical mission they are fulfilling. History of several kinds is unfolding, but history takes second place to the men and their fates as we, the audience for Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s “Fly” at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre, palpably experience and feel the danger that can threatens to overcome both our heroes and Western civilization.
Ricardo Khan, as director, has built his production to a fever pitch. Lighting by Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot accentuates the mood and atmosphere in the Crossroads auditorium. Yellow-orange lights are seen at all angles simulating active gunfire. Meanwhile, the general scene begins to look dark and smoky. Everything on stage is in plain view, but it seems engulfed, to great and moving effect, in the murky fog and clashing color of war.
“Clashing color” is another theme of “Fly” and the probable motivation for its writing. The pilots we come to see, know, admire, and love the most are members of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of black aviators that fought with acknowledged distinction as World War II came to close. Their color, in terms of skin pigment, made a difference within general American society and the military hierarchy of their time. Such inconsequential evolutionary traits, skin that would protect one who lived in equatorial climates from the ravages of the sun, are subjects of controversy today. In 1943, they were accepted exclusionary factors in a world that used separate-but-equal as its panacea for bigotry. The Tuskegee Airmen as a group were in the position Jackie Robinson faced as an individual playing baseball. They were selected by powers who wanted rational change to break a racial line that placed artificiality and prejudice above reality and common sense. As “Fly” proceeds, their race disappears as our concern for them and appreciation for their accomplishments take precedence. “Fly” celebrates this advancement while questioning how long it will last when situations normalize, and heroes return to mainstream American life.
Eliis and Khan are shrewd about how they tell their story. They do not deal with all of the members of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group of the 1944-45 Army Air Corps. Taking a cue from Hollywood’s bomber-crew movies, they depict four characters who represent different walks of life, have different attitudes about fighting, and express different motivations for wanting to be part of what was known as the Tuskegee Experiment, the integration of black troops into previously exclusive military assignments, an initiative many deemed as foolhardy and wanted to see fail.
By centering on different types, Ellis and Khan already explode the idea there’s one black man who can be exchanged wholesale for any other. They also allow us to key in on the personalities characterized. The quarter we see is not a naturally compatible bunch. The main traits they have in common are being male and having dark skin tone.
They also do not automatically get along. Rivalries are infighting develop. One pair, the city slickers, argue over which town is better and more attuned to life, New York or Chicago. One guy is from Ottumwa, Iowa and is immersed more in country ways, yet a Midwesterner different from the stereotypical Southerner that would usually be tapped for such a role. The fourth is a West Indian islander, complete with regional accent, who has to convince his colleagues of his Americanism and desire to fight Axis forces as much as he has to persuade Tuskegee trainers to give him his chance at combat. Tuskegee is not the place from which a group of black airmen hailed. It was the Southern army base where they were trained, frequently by prejudiced officers as intent on washing out recruits as they were in promoting them to flight assignments.
The byplay by the men, and the disdain they receive from some commanders, is important to see. It sets up a reality that individualizes the characters and makes their overall situation clearer. Some of the relationships, and certainly the abuse from the captain instructing the flight candidates, are a tad clichéd or predictable. Some early moments relegate “Fly” to being typical and seen before. Eliis and Khan are too cagey to let that become the tenor of their show. Khan, as director, especially works to make “Fly” more than another tribute to the Tuskegee troops and a service play with the expected elements.
For one thing, he begins his production and punctuates sequences, and intervals between scenes with a tap dancer, Omar Edwards, who expresses anger, angst, humor, caution, tension, fear, and camaraderie with great vigor and poignancy.
“Fly” doesn’t open with a scene of four cadets arriving at Tuskegee. It starts with Edwards’s dancer doing a fierce and agitated tap as pictures from American black history — capture of people in Africa, transport in holds across the Atlantic, auctions, slavery, and Jim Crow injustice — appear on screens strategically placed to seemingly radiate images from Edwards’s hips and knees. A standard, if telling, montage attains power from Edwards’s emotionally commentating choreographic accompaniment.
Matters become more standard when the representative quartet assemble. Ellis and Khan have them talk as much about their lives and their appetites and dislikes as much as they discuss their ambitions to be pilots or anything political or racial. They gather into a loose, amorphous bunch, more distinguishable by their places of origin that by any personality trait that attracts you to one and repels you to another.
This looseness eventually becomes apparent as method to Ellis and Khan’s blandness. It actually indicates a pattern Khan in particular will employ throughout his text and his production, a generally defined group or situation tightening and intensifying into someone or something more specific, more tangible, and more strongly commanding of our attention, affection, and allegiance.
The general becomes compelling. The man who was just the islander with visions of cementing his American roots or the New York kid who loved working around aircraft so much as home, he wants to fly them where and when it counts almost without notice turns into someone whose every rebuff or triumph moves you.
Khan manages scene structure the way he develops deepening ties to his characters. The intense combat sequence described at the beginning of this review, the one in which you sense bullets flying, men being pursued by other men, simultaneously fear and confidence in the Tuskegee characters, and the plangent reality of war, is a parallel to a scene earlier in “Fly” in which the four candidates are shown in turn landing an aircraft for the first time.
That scene seems to be filled with unnecessary redundancy. The first candidate, the fast-life Chicagoan, takes to the air, the captain training him on board, and alights from the plane by kissing his palm and touching the ground. The captain seems no less shaken or grateful and mentions “washing out” if landings remain more clumsy.
Ellis and Khan are not content to let the first character’s experience stand for the other three. It gets a little tedious when the fourth flyer, the New Yorker who had some practice landing planes, takes to the cockpit and a scenario we’ve witness three times already repeats with only slight variation.
From a comic or dramatic point of view, the series of four smacks as two too many. Little is gained from landing number two, let along three and four.
But Khan comes through in the end. Those different landing motifs are where we first see the shaky, vibrating hand gestures that accrue from trying to control a stubborn plane. They’re the first in which we see the grimaces on each pilot’s face as he concentrates on operating the plane correctly and learning the strength necessary to guide it with authority. It’s where we’re introduced to the nervous tics and individual levels of concern of each airman. These elements don’t register fully in the training sequence, but they yield full dramatic and emotional dividends when we see the same gestures, expressions, and concentration again in the combat scene.
During the landing sequence, you watch the miming and teeth clenching, and it reminds you of playing combat on some real metal chair in your basement. Khan’s casts look like kids playing, with imaginative exaggeration, at flying an airplane. During the fight scene, you can no impression of play or pretend. The situation is for keeps. Lives we care about can be lost. Danger is imminent, and it’s hard to stay unaffected or uninvolved. The Crossroads air crackles with tension. It’s tangible on stage and in the house. What once seemed repetitive overkill now has perspective and relevance.
Yes, you realize than after being a little squirmy at one more landing simulation. But the squirms you feel as you watch the Crossroads actors battling for their lives, squirms of genuine apprehension, more than make up for any previous tiresomeness.
You realize most how all in “Fly,” from Edwards’s dancing to the climactic bombing of Berlin, has coalesced into a cogent, involving piece. The leisurely time Khan takes in getting you to know the characters as individuals and the intolerance they must sometimes deal with, builds into edgy, febrile anxiety giving “Fly” one of the most exciting, involving denouements a play can have.
Hanover and Berlin battles themselves are staged and lit to turn us into nervous, perspiring worry-warts. Watching men we have a stake in face death and act as a team push us to where we won’t be able to stand it if anything goes wrong with “our men” or impending doom doesn’t reverse itself at least to hope for a favorable outcome.
“Fly” deals with more than training and battle and the prejudice of trainers and others keeping an eye on the black recruits. It delves into relationships between men who happen to be black but would face the same obstacles coming together as an unit whatever their race. It accents the difference between Tuskegee officers who meet the men as raw flight school candidates and the white pilots who are assigned to work with their commissioned black peers. It goes into the racism that lingers even after color lines are blurred and you don’t notice a character’s pigment but someone, who has no idea of the character’s achievements, determines all based on it.
Ellis and Khan emphasize some of these thematic elements. Others they address is passing but with enough attention that you’ll notice it.
In the end, the triumph of “Fly” is race doesn’t matter. It hasn’t for the last 20 minutes or so of the production. Characters become their names and identities rather than just one of the Tuskegee guys. Our care of them is tied to hwo they are and what they mean to us and not because of where they trained or their historic role in military and social history.
Khan’s triumphs are using Edwards’s dancer to symbolize some of the emotions the trainees are feeling. A particularly wonderful moment occurs when the men, who had been alternating between bickering and uniting in their disdain for their instructor, join Edwards in a dance that starts as a tap, has some element of challenge dancing, but ends with all moving in synch and an in a cohesive, flowing manner that sound camaraderie and commitment. The scattered troop suddenly finds its strength. It is linked imagistically and genuinely as all-for-one-and-one-for all, and “Fly” acquires new depth once that happens.
As smart as Ellis and Khan are, there are some false notes in “Fly,” usually deriving from laying some scenes on with a trowel.
A framing device of having one of the airmen take a seat of honor at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, is sweet but cloying. Understandable as the sequence is in terms of black pride and achievement, and satisfying as attending a black president’s investiture may be to a pioneer of an earlier era, the inauguration sequences pander more than they charm and seem to be add-ons to give a contemporary context to the airmen’s story.
The Tuskegee pilots are assigned to escort and cover bombardiers, seemingly a secondary role for which “Fly” expresses appropriate resentment. Ellis and Khan go too far, though, is a passage, in which a Southern pilot apologizes to his protectors for his father’s participation in a lynching. Had the scene ended with that confession, it would have been dramatic and showed a man unable to contain his conscience now that he is fighting alongside people his relations once disdained. The sequence becomes too much when the man hopes the escorts won’t let him go down in flames out of some spite for his father’s act.
That second part of the confession panders because it adds an element no one was thinking and no one needed to hear to complete the story. It also belies the triumph Khan and his actors have had in obliterating all notions about color and race in regard to the Tuskegee pilots engaged in their mission. The pilot’s wish jars for the wrong reason, and the passage, even if derived from authentic research, should be eliminated.
The battle sequences erase all cavils, just as “Fly” shows the folly of racial prejudice in its overall development and the way it erases notions of the airmen being any other than soldiers doing the job they trained for with competence and valor.
Khan’s ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Brooks Brantly, as the Chicagoan who likes jazz, whiskey, gambling, and women, is humorous in portraying his urban appetites while showing that beneath his character’s swagger, there is someone who wants to excel as a pilot and eliminate some Nazis. Desmond Newson brings out the youthfulness and ambition of his character, a New Yorker who enlists underage because he is enamored of flying and also wants to be part of a war to rid the world of Hitler’s oppression. Damian Thompson has a different kind of naivety and inspiration from Newson’s New Yorker. He is an islander striving for excellence and wanting acceptance, from Americans and particularly black Americans, for being a citizen of the U.S. and a stakeholder in its future. Thompson’s character is the sincere, studious one who at times gets as caught up in what he doesn’t understand as much as excelling in what he comprehends easily. Terrell Wheeler has a natural calm that combines seriousness with dignity as the college-educated Iowan who retains his home roots and is contrasted to the guys from Chicago and New York. (Oh yes, there’s a Howard-Morehouse rivalry to go with the New York-Chicago contest.) Anthony J. Goes is effective as the training captain, especially as he gets increasingly upset during the training sequence. Ross Cowan exudes reality as the young co-pilot who becomes comfortable with his black escorts, even to the point of mentioning a lynching in his town. Brandon Nagle is strong as the pilot who may show surprise on his face but takes working alongside black colleagues quickly in his stride.
Beowulf Boritt’s serviceable set is most notable for his propeller-shaped background that places screens in each petal of the propeller so Khan can make good use of Clint Allen’s texturing projections. Rui Rita, Jake DeGroot, and John Gromada produced lights and sound that heightened the already feverish suspense in the war passages.
“Fly” runs through Sunday, April 17, at Crossroads Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $45 and can be obtained by calling 732-545-8100 or by visiting www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org. Grade: B+