By Lauren J Sanders, Burlington Writer’s Workshop
Review of the historical docu-drama Black Angels Over Tuskegee at the Flynn on Saturday, January 29, 2016
Upon entering the theater, you can see that it’s more diverse than most of the exhibitions that I’ve been to throughout the season. That’s because the content of Black Angels Over Tuskegee appeals to people across all walks of life; yet it is a finely tuned story about love and overcoming hardship as black men in this country. Written, directed, choreographed, and acting a major role in the show, Layon Gray and his American Theatre Company put on two and a half hours of beautiful and engaging acting. The off Broadway production didn’t host any singing, but music was a prominent theme throughout. The song “Straighten Up and Fly Right” by Nat King Cole blasted through the sound system more than once, and the airmen on stage utilized the phrase often. Watching six men in uniform (or some nice swanky suits) express themselves through their relationships with one another while overcoming such odds during an obviously despicable and trying time of American history was both emotionally moving and extremely inspirational.
I was amazed that there were only three major scenes in this performance. In the first half I was completely immersed in the backstory and becoming affiliated with the main characters. Time seemed to fly by and when the lights came on for intermission I looked at my friend and said “It’s been an hour and a half already?” These six men – Jerimiah, Elijah, Quentin, Percival, Theodore, and Abraham – all came from different places, yet experienced similar encounters as men of color. Each one had their own story to tell, and did so with so much humor I found myself grinning from ear to ear that my cheeks hurt due to one liners like “Mama named you Abraham so you better be honest!” The love that these airmen grew to create between one another shows the true brotherhood of military members. I personally witness this comradery often as my fiancé is an active duty service member. The way that he speaks about his military family is the same way he speaks about his blood relatives, and the actors in this show depict that same feeling synonymously with that of what happens in our military today.
As we are following the linear timeline of these men attempting to be fighter pilots in the Army Air Corps, we are given riveting monologues. A narrator, whom we later find out to be Abraham’s great grandson,Bottom of Form gives us historically rich details at pivotal points during the performance. Then the characters give us their own stories: we find out why Jerimiah is so bitter and selfish, why Theodore loves his records so much, that Percival has a daughter and wife left at home, why Abraham takes such good care of his brother Quentin, and then we focus on Quentin himself and his lady Lucille pregnant with their future child. Though these men were separated from their families first in Tuskegee, Alabama, then in Northern Africa, we see the way this story will end up.
These men are not allowed to participate both in Alabama and in Africa, but through persistence they end up becoming some of the best pilots in the military at the time. Unfortunately, it is not good enough to withstand the trials of war, and unfortunately all of them but Abraham meet their untimely deaths in the planes they once begged to fly. Abraham is left to take care of his nephew and pass on the stories of these men, so they are never forgotten. The same is happening with this play. It has been running for six continuous years, and though its simple structure is somewhat predictable and easy to follow, the words of its characters ring true. This show made me shed some tears, but they were tears of understanding and a belief that the way we previously conducted ourselves toward people of color in this country was disgraceful. We need stories like this to come to that realization. That’s why I believe our Flynn Theater was packed full of all different types of people. Every single one there recognized this fact. It’s valid what your mama told you when you were a kid, that persistence is key and following the airmen’s motto is a great way to go about life: “Train me and let me demonstrate I can.”