The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Pearl Cleage’s play, “Flyin’ West,” which is being performed at Weathervane Playhouse, a Knight Arts grantee, tells the story about something most of us don’t know – what happened to many southern slaves when they were emancipated by Abraham Lincoln in the Confederate States and freed everywhere else later by the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery altogether).
That experience is revealed in a riveting drama set in 1898 outside the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas (a real place, it is said, that is the oldest and only remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi). “Flyin’ West” scrutinizes the lives, memories and hopes of four women – all former slaves – seeking a better life. No, make that four women who want freedom completely.
The idea of freedom and the pursuit of happiness rocks throughout the play, from all four women (Sophie, Miss Leah, Fannie and Minnie), who cling ferociously to the parcel of land they were granted under the Homestead Act of 1862; to Sophie, who fights against land speculators who do their best to trick away land and re-develop it for profit; on to Minnie, who yearns for freedom within her own marriage as her husband scorns her for her darker shade and tries to rob her of her birthright; and finally to Miss Leah, who grew up on a birthing farm in the South and wants the freedom to take care of not only her children but any offspring of a black woman without harassment.
That’s a lot of drama going on, and the cast of this “Flyin’ West” pulls it off with great feeling and clarity. Roslyn Henderson-Sears (as Sophie) does tough like no one’s business, but with a surety that makes her very likeable. Pamela Morton (as Miss Leah) does her cranky, obstinate, but charmingly funny character to the delight of the audience at the performance I attended. Tina Tompkins (Fannie) is terrific with her character, who is in effect the emotional and moral center of the drama. She gets to resolve the conflict in her own special way (don’t want to ruin it here for anyone who goes to see the play).
Danea Rhodes (as the vulnerable Minnie) alternates between a coquettishness and resilience that makes the plight of her character memorable. Marc Jackson, as the bad guy Frank (Minnie’s husband) gets his due credit at the curtain call when the audience hissed and booed in approval of his performance. It was pretty cool to see him get the joke and play to it. Finally, Jermaine Lamar Harris, in his first role ever as Will Parish, did an estimable job as the sounding board and confident to the central characters.
Jasen J. Smith’s costumes were spot on, reflecting the frontier and late 19th-century couture effortlessly.
The only difficulty on the night we saw the drama was the sound. At times it was not totally difficult to hear the actors, but we had to work at it. A little less effort would have been great.
“Flyin’ West” will be performed on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. through February 24th at Weathervane Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron; 330-836-2626; www.weathervaneplayhouse.com. Tickets are $21 ($5 for students).