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A CurtainUp Review
Black Angels Over Tuskegee

Your dreams, or maybe your nightmares, are about to come true. Just got my orders. Tomorrow morning you’re up again. Make sure you know everything in those manuals. . . you solo.— Major Roberts
left to right:Lamman Rucker, Thom Scott II, David Wendell Boykins, Demetrius Gross, Derek Shaun, Layon Gray
(Photo: Alexandra Maertin )
Layon Gray’s historical drama, Black Angels Over Tuskegee, is based on the real-life experiences of the "Tuskegee Airmen" —-the celebrated African-American air squadron during World War II Gray’s work, which he also directs and performs in, underscores the harsh realities that these young /black men endured to gain their wings. The early scenes are rather static and unimaginatively staged. However, as the cadets face the rigorous tests of flight school, the play gradually achieves more dramatic traction.

The play begins with a prologue that has the lights coming up on a man in his 30s who will serve as a kind of one-man chorus throughout the play. Breaking through the fourth wall, he reminds the audience of the long shadow of Jim Crow throughout American history. This solo chorus character will intermittenlly return to offer morsels of history.

The main action opens at Wendover Army Air Force Base in Utah. Here we meet the six African-American volunteers in a small, ice-cold room. They are preparing to take the first of many aviation tests for their potential integration into the Army Air Force (the name then used for the United States Air Force) as combat pilots. The candidates are all in their 20s and represent a broad geographical cross-section of the country: Abraham Dorsey (Thom Scott II) is a tall, dapper Georgia man with an angular physique and a sensitive soul; his brother Quentin Dorsey (Layon Gray) is a writer with a pregnant fiancée back in Georgia; the laid-back and fun-loving Percival Nash (Demetrius Gross) hails from Nebraska ; Jerimah Jones (Derek Shaun) is a civilian pilot who wants to make a name for himself in the military; Theodore Franks (David Wendell Boykins) is a soft-spoken dreamer and jazz-enthusiast from Louisiana; and Elijah Sam is an ex-boxer turned educator from Georgia. These are men of vastly different in temperament and talents, but despite their physical differences and native state boundaries, they form a tight, tough-minded group determined to break the glass ceiling of the United States military. The best thing about this dramatized version of their story is uncompromising honesty, the unvarnished truth hovering beneath the surface of each scene.

Gray creates convincing portraits of African Americans. But, unlike the late August Wilson who stetched out his portraits over a ten-play cycle, Gray seems intent on trying to cover so much ground in one play that that there isn’t time for the characters to find the appropriate action to express their personalities.

In addition to the fliers' story, Gray tries to encapsulate the heyday of the Jazz Age, with the first act touching on everything from Duke Ellington playing at Carnegie Hall to Josephine Baker wearing her banana skirt. The jazz-inflected milieu is a nice touch but you can pack just so many icons (Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and Sarah Vaughan) into one scene without risking superficially. The author resolves his tendency to over-embroider the plot with an episode that has Quentin stricken with a seizure. This shifts the tempo and allows the drama to morph into intensely-charged action. Quentin’s medical condition raises new issues but he regains his physical strength just in time to take the crucial flight test with the other students. Yes, everybody passes with flying colors but Quentin's health continues to be a sobering ingredient in the narrative.

In Act 2, the cadets transfer toTuskegee, Alabama, where they must prove they are up to par with their white counterparts. Their motto: "Train me and let me demonstrate." is put to the test by the tyrannical eye of Major Roberts (Rich Skidmore) both in the barracks and on the fields. Watching them being airborne, we get an intimate look at this "experiment" at Tuskegee. Not surprisingly, one of the most exciting moments of the evening is when these soldiers get their wings as Army Air Force aviators.

There's some stunning, stick to the mind stage imagery that, without any special effects or high-tech wizardry, lets us see the cadets simulate all kind of flying maneuvers: aerial loops, flips, and tricky combat routines. Josh Abetted by Iacovelli's minimally oriented set design, the story is kept front and center at all times

Ironically, Black Angels is upbeat in that it demonstrates how African-Americans could succeed in the military even as they remained restricted in their military careers throughout World War II. After joining the 99th Black Regiment, the original 6 African-Americans were assigned to Casablanca in North Africa and later to the European war theater, but instead of being integrated with the white pilots, they were segregated. As Major Roberts puts it: "You will have your own base, with your own planes, with your own mechanics! Is that clear?"

The actors playing the cadets are persuasive, and Rich Skidmore possesses the right combination of steel nerve and fierceness as Major Roberts. My one reservation about the performances applies to Antonio D. Charity, as the Young Man. Though he has an imposing physique, he fails to project the necessary authority.

In a director’s program note, Gray explains that this story was born as he watched a long overdue 2007 tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen on TV. Bypassing the usual research methods (books and archival documents), he went to the most authentic source: the Tuskegee Airmen themselves. It is thus their words that imbue this moving story with its authenticity. It is the first production of Black Angels at the National Tuskegee Airmen convention in Las Vegas in 2009 that encouraged Gray to bring it to New York where it is booked for an open-ended run.

Black Angels Over Tuskegee
Written and directed by Layon Gray

Cast: Antonio D. Charity (Man), David Wendell Boykins (Theodore Franks), Thom Scott II (Abraham Dorsey), Layon Gray (Quentin Dorsey), Lamman Rucker (Elijah Sams), Demetrius Gross (Percival Nash), Derek Shaun (Jerimah Jones), Rich Skidmore (Major Roberts).
Sets: Josh Iacovelli
Costumes: Jason McGee
Sound: Aidan Cole
Lighting: David Boykins/Graham Kindred
House Manager: Scott Layman
St. Luke’s Theatre at 308 W. 46th Street
Tickets: $31.50 - $56.50.
From 1/29/10; opening 2/15/10; open ended run
Monday, Friday, and Saturday @ 8pm, and Sundays @ 5pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 10 minutes including intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on February 8th press performance
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