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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

By Laura Hitchcock

Everyone should dig back and hope.
Charlayne Woodard in an interview about"Flight.
Although commissioned by Center Theatre Group's P.L.A.Y. (Performing for Los Angeles Youth), Charlayne Woodard's collection of folktales, now having its World Premiere at The Kirk Douglas Theatre is the universal experience we've come to expect from this artist. Woodard's autobiographical plays, Pretty Fire and Neat, which also deal with childhood experiences and were performed at The Mark Taper Forum, would never remotely be considered children's theatre and this play shouldn't be pigeon-holed there either.

Woodard has traced tales that migrated from Africa to the Caribbean to the plantation culture of the American South and observed how they changed in each environment. They are told by five slaves on a plantation near Savannah, Georgia in 1858 to a little boy who's hidden up a tree because his mother Sadie was sold off the plantation that day for the crime of teaching him to read.

These are stories Li'l Jim's mother used to tell him. The group's purpose is not just to lure him down but to reassure him that they will be there for him, to provide support and continue to pass on these stories which disguise truths, both profound and bitter, about their lives.

Oh Beah, the old lady who is the matriarch of this society, begins with a dramatic creation myth about an evil man who cast dark death spells on everyone until he met a woman who cast light spells. The two battled to the death and, since neither won, the world is divided into the dark of night and the light of day. There is also a story about how wily Woman overcame Man's superior strength. And there's one about the value of friendship when one of two escaping slaves shinnies up a tree, abandoning the other who outsmarts a grizzly bear. The story which gives the play its title, is a horrendous example of what Woodard describes as a "fly-away" story. In it, a young girl who has just given birth is unmercifully whipped by the overseer when she pauses to nurse her child. It ends with her flying away over the fields. This story and the creation myth bookend the play with birth and death tales but to Woodard the fly-away story, though not sugar-coating the cruelty of the experience, is a testament to freedom.

The most memorable tales are the ones that incorporate the slaves' own experience, particularly the last one about Ooh-na-na-na whose two beautiful children are swallowed by an elephant. She traces them, encountering an antelope and a leopard along the way. When she in turn is swallowed by the elephant, she marches around his stomach, feeds and encourages the other creatures he has swallowed and succeeds in getting his permission to cut their way out of the big creature's belly.

Woodard superbly weaves these tales into the slaves' own lives. The husband Nate's rage and anguish for his lost wife, Alma who stood by and let Sadie be caught reading because she was jealous of her and Ezra who realizes the chains that shackle her were forged by him and that he has the key, which he slips to her.

The variety of roles give each member of the excellent ensemble a chance to shine. Graceful Chastity Dotson is as memorable as the antelope as she is as a girl who was separated from her sister and reunited, in a bizarre twist of fate, when the abusive woman she works for turns out to be that sister. Frank Faucette finds the pain and fury in Nate and the lip-smacking superiority of the elephant. Julanne Chidi Hill is the painfully jealous Alma and the proud resourceful Ooh-na-na-na. Meshach Taylor plays Ezra, the oldest slave on the plantation, and finds the humor in female roles he plays and the evil in the caster of dark spells. Ameenah Kaplan on the drums is an indispensable presence. Myra Lucretia Taylor is a powerful grounding presence as the matriarch Oh Beah and deliciously slithering as the leopard.

The animal representations are among the highlights of the show. They remind us that we don't need the props Julie Taymor created for The Lion King any more than we need sets, costumes and huge casts to provide the stories told so exquisitely by this gorgeous collection of griots.

Robert Egan's direction, aided by Otis Sallid's choreography, teases out the sorrow, joy and humor in this production with a sorcerer's touch. Myung Hee Cho uses earth tones and varied patterns to create costumes that express the character of the community and has created a mysterious woodland setting whose trees drip Spanish moss and serve as refuge and escape.

Flight is a giant step for Charlayne Woodard who, after three solo autobiographical plays, proves that she can skillfully create a dramatic funny ensemble piece. And this is only the first step.
Playwright: Charlayne Woodard
Director: Robert Egan
Cast: Chastity Dotson (Mercy), Frank Faucette (Nate), Julanne Chidi Hill (Alma), Ameenah Kaplan (Drummer/Percussionist), Meshach Taylor (Ezra), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Oh Beah)
Set and Costume Design: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting Design: Georgg Korf
Sound Design: Adam Phalen
Choreography: Otis Sallid
Original Music: Karl Fredrik Lundeberg
Running Time: One hour and a half, no intermission
Running Dates: January 16-February 13, 2005.
Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, Phone: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 29.
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