Above: Keona Welch, Michael Chenevert, Brenda Pressley, Brittany Bradford, and Nikiya Mathis in “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Pearl Cleage’s 1994 drama Flyin’ West opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, directed by Seret Scott. The play deals with a period in the latter 19th century when freed slaves struck out to create new homes in the West under the Homestead Act. Entire black towns were formed that welcomed new freed slaves for many years. Of these, only Nicodemus, Kansas remains as an historical site.
The story centers around four strong black women who settled in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas in 1898. The matriarch, Miss Leah, is wonderfully played by Brenda Pressley, and her two interchangeable daughters Fannie Dove and Sophie Washington, well played by Brittany Bradford and Nikiya Mathis. The director has them costumed and made up in a similar fashion, although one lives in Miss Leah’s house, the other apparently lives nearby. And honestly, it is difficult to remember which of the daughters is which. They both speak in exactly the same dialect, pitch and speed.
The love interest, Wil Parish is charmingly played by Edward O’Blenis.
In fact, while the men are easily understood from the balcony, the women’s rapid dialect exchanges are sometimes difficult to understand.
Brittany Bradford and Edward O’Blenis
Photo by Carol Rosegg
All of the action takes place in Miss Leah’s house, which in Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s conception, is a huge, vaulted ceiling home with at least two implied bedrooms just behind, and dominated by an enormous 2-story stone fireplace. Considering that most freed slaves came to Nicodemus with very little, it appears that Miss Leah has done very well for herself.
While part of the first act is chit-chat among Leah, her two daughters and Wil, the story kicks off when her third daughter Minnie Dove Charles (played with great poise by Keona Welch) arrives from London with her new husband Frank Charles, a sometime poet (played as a terrific villain by Michael Chenevert). Frank is dressed to the nines in an elegant 3-piece suit and seems to be quite light-skinned. You quickly realize that he has been “passing for white” for some time even though his naïve wife doesn’t seem to pick up this. What she does pick up on is several bruises, for it seems that Frank is, in addition to a mediocre poet, a wife-beater.
The central part of the story is that Frank believes that white “speculators” are willing to pay thousands of dollars for Leah’s property and in which his wife holds a part interest and he tries to force her to sell her share. The second act resolves this incredibly by descending to the Arsenic and Old Lace story line, but without Teddy in the basement. Oh, and while Sophie carries a rifle in Act I, it is never fired, violating the Checkhov gun rule.
While “Flyin’ West” is an entertaining enough evening, it isn’t a particularly strong or credible play. Cleage’s dialog lacks any poetry or elegance of language. The one exception is one of Leah’s second act speeches, which is briefly compelling. And from what I have been able to find out, the real Nicodemus was never a target for speculators, since the railroad was never in town as the play indicated, but some six miles away on the other side of the Solomon River.
Flyin’ West runs through June 16 at the Westport Country Playhouse, with performances on Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 2 and 8, Thursday and Friday at 8, Saturday at 3 and 8 and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are available on line or by calling 203-227-1477. The show is in two acts, with one 15 minute intermission. The first act is about 75 minutes, and the second about 45 minutes, ending around 10:15.