-by Jamie Flowers
Pearl Clearge’s Flyin’ West is part of the Reclamation Repertory at the Quintessence Theatre where the audience will receive strong messages of justice, faith and hope. By producing many shows that bring new light and energy to poignant and often traumatizing history the Quintessence Theatre Group does not shy away from the dirty, but celebrates those who have been cast aside and giving them a voice.
Flyin’ West is directed by Zuhairah “Z” McGill who believes that Clearge is “one of the most powerful, brilliant, exquisitely beautiful playwrights” who has written “a beautiful tribute to the African American pioneers of this period.” McGill herself is only three generations removed from slavery and the oral tradition of sharing one’s personal and communal history has been woven into her cultural history, much like the character she plays (Miss Leah). She is “proud to direct and help tell a story of all of the themes in this play, that include: beautiful and rich characters, not knowing the unknown, dealing with racism, Jim Crow, hatred of one-self, domestic violence, love of others, and love of oneself.”
The story takes place in 1899 throughout the course of a month in the lives of the women of the Dove family. The Homestead Act was passed and allowed for the distribution of government land to anybody (colored, white, male or female) who could homestead the land by living on it for five years and improve it by building a 12 by 14 dwelling and growing crops. After five years the homesteader could file a patent (or deed of title) to become owners of the land. The women in this family exceeded this requirement and amassed many acres in Nicodemus, Kansas. While the characters in this story are fictional, the historical accuracy of “Land as Power” and the turn of events around this are rooted in truth. To this day, Nicodemus is the only remaining all- Black township today and is designated a national historic landmark.
The ensemble was fantastic in every way. Phillip Brown (Wil Parish), Maya Smoot (Fannie Dove) Deanna S. Wright (Sophie Washington), Billie Wyatt (Minnie Dove Charles) and Zuhairah “Z” McGill (Miss Leah) were able to bring so much passion and drama to Flyin’ West without ever becoming caricatures of their characters. The incredible set design and theater-in-the-round by Brian Sidney Bembridge allowed the actors to draw the audience in. Anticipating where the actors would come from created a strong energy that engaged the audience. The actors utilized their body language to convey every complex emotion, from anger and fear to love and tenderness and mastered their space. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
The play was written so that the history was explained expertly and challenged the audience to continue to make sense and meaning of the lasting impacts on today’s society. In the time of weekly mass shootings, BLM and political extremists on all side it is important to celebrate the work that has been done and acknowledge all that is left to do. The idea of a reclamation repertory is exciting because the beauty and strength of the stories transcend time and make a powerful space for the underrepresented voices to be heard.
Flyin’ West runs through June 26th and tickets are available at www.quintessencetheatre.org. This show, along with Camille from Alexander Dumas, concludes the theatre’s Season XII: Breaking the Cycle.