By Manning Harris
Theatrical Outfit has a bona fide hit on its hands with its production of “Fly,” running through March 10.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. There was a 1995 HBO film about them, which I’m told met with middling success.
It seems there are some stories which only live theatre can do justice to, and based on the thrilling opening night performance I witnessed, I heartily concur. An earlier version of “Fly” was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute in 2005, but its official world premiere was at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick in 2009, co-authored by Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis.
In 1941 when the Jim Crow South was in full effect, evidently Nazi Germany was perceived a greater threat than loosing the bonds of racism and discrimination; and in Tuskegee, Alabama, the country’s first black military pilots began training. Even though it was first called the “Tuskegee Experiment,” the project became one of the 20th Century’s first great success stories for African-Americans.
Lest you think “Fly” would be a story more historical than theatrical, let me assure you that this is not the case. For example, there’s a character called the Tap Griot, performed brilliantly by Fenner Eaddy.
Artistic Director Tom Key informs us that “griot” refers to “a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers” with West African roots. In this play the Griot uses dance to reinforce and punctuate the action, whether it’s heartbeats or machine gun fire. It may sound artificial or precious; it’s not.
“Fly” is directed by Patdro Harris. The actors are perfectly cast and very fine: Chet (who also functions as a narrator), Eric J. Little; W.W., Doc Waller; Oscar, Joel Ishman; J. Allen, John E. Doyle, Capt. O’Hurley, Brian Kurlander; Col. Snopes, J.C. Long. This group of players portray characters who are not cardboard heroes but highly individualistic human beings caught up in an extraordinary time. And they don’t all make it—out of school, and out of the war.
There is a superb use of large video screens (designed by Rob Dillard) throughout the play. These are vital and almost another character. Mary Parker’s lighting and Jonathan Summers’ sound design are both subtle and powerful. Kat Conley’s simple but totally effective set allows “a simple falling into place that takes your breath away,” as one critic described the original “A Chorus Line.” The entire show is a very fast 90 minutes.
There is music: “Lulu’s Back in Town” and the WWII hit “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” all used seamlessly. And it’s thrilling when it’s used in counterpoint to when the airmen are flying into the belly of the beast—Berlin—at the climax of the play.
Playwright Ellis perhaps said it best: “The play is about lifting yourself off the ground, lifting yourself from whatever holds you down, reaching for your dream and elevating yourself to that place in the mind and the heart that’s the sky.”
As the airmen used to say: “May the clouds part for you and may the wind be forever at your back.”
And I’ll say—may you not miss what is the best pure theatre experience in Atlanta so far in 2013. It sets the bar high.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.