An abundance of stock characters and melodramatic situations might prompt a lesser director to turn Flyin¹ West into a hiss-filled potboiler; but in director Jeffrey Nickelson's capable hands, Pearl Cleage's 1992 play becomes an expansive ode to courage, self-determination and the price of freedom.
The two-hour-plus drama is being given its regional premiere by Denver's Shadow Theatre Company. Set in 1898 in the real-life, all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, it is grittier and, at the same time, more lyrical than Cleage's oft-produced Blues for an Alabama Sky. The play tells a moving tale about a distaff quartet of homesteaders who brave frontier hardships -- including some frightening episodes of domestic strife -- to stake their claim to independence.
Punctuated by graceful steel-guitar interludes, the story unfolds in deliberate though poetic fashion. Following a mournful musical prelude, we're introduced to Sophie Washington, a quick-tempered Nicodemean who's worried that her prairie paradise will be ruined if her fellow townsfolk decide to sell their hard-won parcels of property to land speculators.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street
Presented by the Shadow Theatre Company
Through March 10, 303-837-9355
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While the matronly Miss Leah appreciates Sophie's concerns, she has learned to steer clear of the younger woman's activist methods -- such as giving a Sunday-afternoon speech before the whole town. A former slave who moved West some twenty years earlier, Leah prefers to unite her community's residents by sustaining -- and building upon -- the memory of their collective enslaved past. But when Sophie and her informally adopted "sisters," Minnie and Fannie Dove, decide to split the family farm among themselves, some hard realities rear their ugly heads. For one, Minnie's abusive husband, Frank, tries to make a fast buck by selling his wife's interest. And for a while it looks as though the loosely knit family, including Fannie's knife-wielding beau, Will Parrish, isn't going to be able to thwart Frank's plans.
Despite some pacing problems and minor miscues, the actors render taut portrayals without succumbing to the pitfalls of caricature. They also manage to blend authentic feeling with historically accurate behavior: At times, the figures pacing about the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center's stage are so down-to-earth that they act more modern than tomorrow; at others, they seem as though they've been lifted directly from an album of historic photographs.
Veteran actress Bee Parks leads the company with a splendid portrait of Miss Leah. Whether she's zinging Sophie with a sly one-liner ("Once Fannie gets out the way, you might get some fool to look at you") or sharing remembrances of atrocities past with Minnie ("I needed to be somewhere big enough for all my sons and ghost babies to roam," she quietly says), Parks commands the stage with regal simplicity. Sitira Pope exudes both heartbreak and hope as Minnie, especially when she's anywhere near her troubled husband; acutely aware of his failings, she's also stymied by the fact that he wants to deny the very heritage that she holds dear. Damion Hoover plays Frank, and he makes the most of a difficult part, managing to elicit knowing laughter while delivering the mulatto poet's snobbish remarks, and drawing gasps when clutching Minnie by the hair and contemptuously calling her a "pickaninny." Together, Hoover and Pope convey the intense violence that passes between their characters without ever causing us to fear for the actors' safety. Rhonda Jackson exquisitely captures all of Fannie's optimism, faith and inner resolve. Adrienne Martin-Fullwood proves a force to be reckoned with as the protective Sophie, and Dwayne Carrington turns in a mutilayered performance as the affable Will.
Performed against a backdrop of sponge-painted walls, golden wainscoting and assorted prairie flotsam (Michael R. Duran designed the evocative setting), the play gathers momentum with each passing scene, underscored here and there by strains that hint at gospel mainstays like "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Despite the dramatist's frank treatment of the subject of domestic abuse, the play is hardly a sermon about specific social issues; instead, as Nickelson and company make clear, Cleage's admiring backward glance pays tribute to the generations of trailblazing women who selflessly cleared the way for those who would follow them.