Stories of Progress and Racial Equality Allowed to Fly, Soar at Pasadena Playhouse

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[dropcap]Fly[/dropcap], now making its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen — the first African-American Army Air Corps fighters — whose monumental efforts as World War II combat pilots helped lead to the official desegregation of the military in 1948 and were a touchstone in the shaping of the nascent Civil Rights Movement.

When Ricardo Khan, Fly‘s director and co-writer, first came to know this story in the 1980s, no one had yet tackled this historical moment creatively in any major way. Since then, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been recounted in George Lucas’ big-screen feature Red Tails (2012) and in the 1995 HBO film, which Fly’s co-writer Trey Ellis also co-wrote. And, although the film versions have brought awareness to the story, many people — especially a younger generation, Kahn said — are unfamiliar with this “shining” moment in history. He wanted to create a way to tell the story on stage in a way that “did not feel like a history lesson, and that incorporated all the magic and theatricality that only theater can.”

The most distinctly theatrical element in Fly is the use of a “Tap Griot,” a tap dancer who expresses the Tuskegee pilots’ emotions and internal struggles. “The Tap Griot,” Kahn explained, “attempts to express and feel the pain when they lose somebody, or their elation when they graduate, or the frustration and rage they feel going up against a very racist situation.”

Fly, which debuted at Lincoln Center in 2005 and has undergone several workshops and revisions since, is fortunate to have Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown, former squadron commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron, as its primary consultant. Brown has spent multiple years advising Khan and introducing him to other Tuskegee Airmen, and he and his compatriots have greatly informed the writing of the show. (The characters in the play are amalgamations of the real men, rather than representative of specific individuals.)

Throughout Fly‘s 10-year evolution, Khan has asked to meet any Tuskegee Airmen living in every city the production visits, so that he and his cast and crew can continue to honor and learn about their legacy. Terrell Wheeler, who plays Oscar in the production, is deeply impressed by his interactions with these groundbreaking combat pilots. “Just to see them…[and] thinking about what they might have seen, what they might have done, how they’ve internalized it and moved forward with civilian life,” Wheeler said. “It’s intriguing, it’s admirable, it’s intimidating a little bit. They definitely leave an impression of inspiration that, hopefully, in my art, I can pass on to other people.”

Speaking to men overcoming injustice and racism to help secure the promise of a better world, Fly comes to the Pasadena Playhouse during Black History Month. Khan is aware that some argue against this annual observance because “it’s American history and it should be all the time,” but said that he is glad that it gives school children and educators the opportunity to engage with “these chapters in history.” So, offering a production of Fly during Black History Month, Kahn feels, “especially for young people, is quite a good thing.”

Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis pose with the cast of FLY along with a group of local and legendary Tuskegee airmen on opening night.
Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis pose with the cast of Fly along with a group of local and legendary Tuskegee airmen on opening night.

And notably, this co-production by the Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre Company — one of the nation’s foremost African-American theater companies — is making its West Coast premiere next door to Hollywood, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the call for honoring and employing more diversity in entertainment.

As Crossroads’ co-founder and former artistic director, Khan is well poised to comment on black achievement and recognition in the arts. “Everything we’re talking about should be about how we come together, not how we divide,” he said. The goal for Crossroads, Kahn noted, “has been to present the African American experience in a way that enlightens people and invigorates the conversation on race in America… I think it’s very confusing to understand the issue of race [here], but the legacy continues to harm people of all colors. We need something that can bring us together in a way that challenges our imaginations, our own feelings, to a higher sense of who we are as Americans.”

While he is not personally affected by the Oscars controversy, Kahn said, he feels that the Academy should be held to higher standard. “I do believe that something as powerful in this world as the Oscars should do better and recognize that we’re not living on a level playing field.” He has hopes for the conversations that the Oscars controversy and his play may provoke and the work they might inspire. “I believe that we do need to be doing our own work more. There’s a level of stress in being black in America from sun up to sun down that is very hard to explain. The threat,” Kahn added, “doesn’t just come from diet or things physical, it comes from how America is set up.”

When asked if he thinks people should come see Fly as an alternative to Oscar bait, Kahn laughed. “No matter what, I think they should come to Fly.” Like the Tuskegee Airmen, throughout their fight for inclusion and recognition, Khan believes that change will come, and he has faith that his work can be a means to provoke it.

Fly, added Kahn, “is about men and women who are black, who faced much worse than we are facing today, and they believed. They didn’t believe based on race, they believed based on a pursuit of excellence. That to me is what we need to be focusing on today. Not what somebody has taken from us, but the power we have within ourselves to be better — the capacity we have for excellence within ourselves, and the ultimate importance of our dreams, and the dreams we, in earnest, need to pass down to our children.”

This message, as modeled by the Tuskegee Airmen, is what Kahn hopes audiences of any color take away from Fly. “It’s not just an African American experience,” he said. “It’s an American experience.”

NOW PLAYING: FLY at Pasadena Playhouse, through February 21.

With a focus on hope, endurance, and accomplishment, Fly tells the story of the first African-American Army Air Corp fighters known as the Tuskegee Airmen who flew over the skies of Europe and North Africa during World War II.With a focus on hope, endurance, and accomplishment, Fly tells the story of the first African-American Army Air Corp fighters known as the Tuskegee Airmen who flew over the skies of Europe and North Africa during World War II.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen is a writer, actor, and director. She currently writes about arts & entertainment for Neon Tommy, as well as a monthly column about groundbreaking women in Hollywood for Ms. In the Biz. She holds a B.A. in History and Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California, as well as a Master’s in British History from the University of Oxford. Because she doesn’t have enough degrees, she is also currently working towards a M.A. in Arts Journalism at USC. Theatrically, she can mostly be found at the Antaeus Theater, where she is a proud affiliate.