Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
In the fall of 1898, willful Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis) shares coffee with Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), a crusty, outspoken elder. They are situated near Nicodemus, Kansas, an all black community. The women are determined to hold fast to their land, even as white people hope to purchase it. The women are homesteaders having a discussion inside a home artfully designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg. Sophie also has plans to create a school in town. Miss Leah will speak of her days as a slave and of her children whom, for one reason or another, she lost.
Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford) arrives with Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis). Fannie is sweet and attempts to bring peace when others' tensions escalate. A bit later, Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch) comes along with her husband Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert). Minnie is the younger sister and has been living in England with her husband. Minnie is pregnant and misses home; she claims she loves her husband, who is physically abusive to her. Later, Frank is vocal about the money Sophie and Fannie could make if they sold to white speculators. Frank is of mixed heritage, lighter skinned than the women, and could possibly be mistaken for being white.
While Sophie is not a blood relative of Fannie and Minnie, she (a bit older) has watched over them in big sister mode. Sophie will not stand for inequity and lack of justice. She is vociferous and most capable. She has great pride when it comes to race and lives in the present with an eye toward the future. Sophie serves to contrast Frank, who, to understate, does not celebrate his black heritage.
The action occurs several decades after The Civil War and the women, given emancipation, have moved westward. Miss Leah is fiery and bold. She vividly recalls life in the South; it was a time when she was powerless. Sophie and she are thinking about future generations and they will do everything possible to ensure that Nicodemus remain an all-black town. Playwright Cleage honors history with her play, one charged with spirit and resolve.
Flyin' West was written during the early 1990s and the playwright followed, in 1995, with Blues for an Alabama Sky. Clearly, her thematic intent is to present women who have left oppression behind and instead thrive with opportunity to create, grow, and serve future generations.
Seret Scott, whose direction of Native Son at Yale Rep this past fall was also commendable, allows and encourages the women in Flyin' West opportunity to create and live within their characters. Michael Chenevert captures unlikable Frank, a non-sympathetic personality with precision. Edward O'Blenis, on opening night, was a bit hesitant both with his lines and grasp as Wil Parish. Perhaps the performer will become more confident as the run continues.
When considering thematic import of Flyin' West one could argue that its messages and meaning, while valuable, are not all that new or different. Still, this is a highly dramatic production and one which is richly pertinent. The characters drive the plot, one which is awakening. Many individuals in contemporary America grapple with racism and its ramifications. That does not grow old, nor does this show. If the first act is a tad lengthy, it is offset by the fervent conclusion of the play, a forceful work.
Flyin' West, through June 16, 2018, at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Ct., Westport CT. For tickets, visit westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.