Albany

Theater review: Cast, technical wizardry elevate story of Tuskegee Airmen at theRep

The cast in a scene from "Fly" at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. (Doug Liebig)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The cast in a scene from "Fly" at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. (Doug Liebig)

A memory play.

An old airman, Dr. Chet Simpkins (Jeremiah Packer), attends the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009.

“History is a river we stand in,” he says, and the audience knows all too well how that feels: we are living our daily lives in the midst of a global pandemic.

But he — an African American WWII Tuskegee pilot — has always stood in a rushing river, one that often threatens to knock him off his feet; and the montage of rear-wall projections of American Black history that fly by reminds us of how he has gotten to this remarkable moment in Washington, D.C.

In a pulsating 90-minute production at theRep that impresses with its technical wizardry and absorbing performances, “Fly” tells the story of a quartet of Black recruits (the youngest but 17) who are training at the flight school in Tuskegee, Alabama, to perform combat missions in Europe.

Each young man brings with him ambition, pride in where he comes from and what he has already accomplished, wariness about — and fury at — white commandeers/teachers (like Captain O’Hurley, played by Torsten Hillhouse), and — a lot of testosterone.

These four have to take the measure of each other first: Chet is from Harlem; WW (Calvin Thompson) is from Chicago; Oscar (Trevor McGhie) is from Iowa; and J. Allen (Yao Dogbe) is from the West Indies. It takes a while for them to bond, but they do, and the grief shown later when one of them washes out of flight training and another is killed during a war mission comes from that hard-won sense of brotherhood.

Their togetherness is further reinforced when they confront the racism in town and in scene with two white soldiers (Shayne David Cameris and Ryan Fuchs).

Co-creators Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan have included one more character, The Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), a ghostlike West African storyteller. But except for two speeches, this Griot speaks only with his feet. His tapping is the first sound we hear (like gunfire or the beats of history or the call to arms or code or declaration of self?), and Edwards — tall, with dreadlocks, a patterned shirt, jeans, bracelets, and high-heeled boots (costumes by Isabel Rubio) — provides visual and emotional commentary on the action. It’s a compelling conceit.

Director Clinton Turner Davis and choreographer Hope Clarke have created stunning stage movement and pictures throughout, all underscoring the thrumming feelings of these young men in dangerous situations; and the presence of The Griot connects their personal and collective struggles to a noble African history, one which they are determined to elaborate with honor in this country.

I have a couple of reservations about the script. Two aerial combat scenes, played out so graphically thanks to the superb tech work of Beowuf Boritt, Rob Denton, John Gromada, and Nathan W. Scheuer, are one too many. I almost felt trapped in a video game. And I yearned for a little more personal information about each man, told, perhaps, at some point, in quiet exchange.

At the end of the play, we are back at the 2009 inauguration in Washington, D.C., as Aretha Franklin does her memorable take on “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” Simpkins says what we aways wonder about: Why did these men fight for a country in wartime that often fought against them in peacetime?

That they did manifests their patriotism and nobility. Such was their historical legacy.

And we, too, are reminded that there is still work to be done in our own fractious historical moment.

‘Fly’

WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: through Feb. 20
HOW MUCH: $62-$27
MORE INFO: 518.346.6204, or capitalrep.org

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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