Ricardo Kahn, artisrtic director of Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, has long been intrigued by the story of the Tuskegee airmen. Several years ago he wrote a 43-minute play on the subject, subsequently performed in high schools throughout the state. It paid tribute to the famed few of World War II and their astonishing accomplishments. Now, teamed with co-writer Trey Ellis, Kahn has expanded that work to 95 minutes and added multi-media effects that turn the work into a powerful, emotional patriotic tribute that stirs the imagination even as it educates.
The title, “Fly” really doesn’t do justice to the evening, which focuses on four men as they battle to be accepted both as soldiers and as fliers. One is from Chicago, street-wise; another from Harlem. But the other two are hardly stereotypes. One is from the Caribbean and has the soft island lilt to his voice to prove it. And the last is from the fields of rural Iowa. Their commander, white and clearly unhappy with his assignment, is proud of the fact that he washes out nearly 70 percent of the applicants and looks forward to increasing his odds.
Playwright Kahn uses rear-projection pictures to allow us to see exactly what each flier experiences and lighting designer Brant Thomas Murray adds the flashes of combat to give us a real sense of the war. Other than that a minimal set design, moved casually but effectively, emphasizes the closeness and the vulnerability of the men. And there is an added element — dancer Omar Edwards with both his taps and his body shows us the beauty and the power of the machines in action and surprisingly, also the moods involved. Rather than being a distraction, it adds insight and satisfaction.
There is some drill choreography (credit both the cast and choreographer Hope Clarke) as befits the situation and some tense scenes of the action in the skies over Germany, especially one massive air raid on Berlin. Part of the lore of Tuskegee is that they never lost a bomber in spite of furious and at time desperate attacks by German fighters. No wonder that one of their commanders is quoted widely as having said: “Without these men, there would be no hope.”
It is noteworthy that at his inaugural, President Obama invited a choral group from Tuskegee to perform, and playwright Kahn uses this fact to “bookend” the show. He also has a clever way with dialogue: “The world is breaking apart, but he did his best to keep it stitched together.” And fine acting from the company, particularly the four recruits: Turon Kofi Alleyne, Charlie Hudson, Royce Johnson, and Yaegel Welch. And Jeremiah Wiggins as their slow-to-believe Captain.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Eleanor Roosevelt was offered a plane ride by a “colored” pilot, decided to accept, and despite anxious controversy — FDR: “If Eleanor wants to do something, no one can stop her” — took the flight and thereby enhanced the buildup of the air base. Another significant (and true) story: on the final preview night at Crossroads, two of the original airmen, now nearing 90 years of age, showed up at the theater with gifts for the cast.
A lovely moment; a lovely show.
“Fly,” Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Saturday, October 17. World premiere of a drama that brings to life the Tuskegee Airman, the African-American Air Corp fighters who flew over the European skies during World War II. Written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. $40 to $75. 732-545-8100 ro www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.