Review: Weathervane’s ‘Flyin’ West fascinating look at black homesteaders in the West

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Pamela Morton as Miss Leah, Danea Rhodes as Minnie Dove Charles in Weathervane's production of "Flyin' West.
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Pearl Cleage explores a fascinating time in U.S. history in the drama Flyin’ West, now playing at Akron’s Weathervane Community Playhouse.

Cleage’s work is a fictional story set in 1898 in the real town of Nicodemus, Kan. The town was founded in 1877 at the tail end of the Reconstruction period, settled by black homesteaders after thousands of freed slaves moved West to claim land through the Homestead Act.

This tale of three sisters, an adopted sister and a close neighbor occurs more than 30 years after slavery was abolished in 1865, focusing on the black, single women who labored to scratch out meager livings on the Great Plains.

Today, Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi, according to the National Park Service

Director Jennifer Jeter’s female actors create sharp characterizations of former slaves and black women born to freedom that, together, weave a rich story. As adopted sister Sophie, Roslyn Henderson-Sears creates a determined, unstoppable leader who wants “a town where a colored woman is free to live her life as a human being.” In this story, the women have relocated to Nicodemus after an 1892 lynching and riot in their former town of Memphis.

Tina Thompkins brings sweetness to the role of sister Fannie, who sees good everywhere. Danea Rhodes paints a skittish woman with a tremulous voice in sister Minnie, who visits from London with her upscale husband Frank.

Adding humor to the mix is Pamela Morton as smart-mouthed neighbor Leah, a rich character who tells brutal stories of slavery without appearing to dwell in resentment. The effervescent Fannie urges her to record her stories, but Leah prefers oral histories: “Some things have to be said out loud to keep the life in them.”’

Unfortunately, the male actors in this play aren’t as strong as their female counterparts. The all-too-understated Jermaine Harris gets lost in the shuffle in this story as Wil, the neighbor who woos Fannie. And although Marc Jackson is brooding and speaks in a threatening manner as the mulatto Frank, his body language is awkward and his demeanor stiff and turned inward, which weakens his hateful characterization.

Jasen Smith creates especially gorgeous costumes for the elegant Minnie from London. Her elaborate maroon travel dress with overcoat and other gowns are created from historic dress patterns.

Alan Scott Ferrall also has created a great-looking two-story set that features a living room/kitchen area as well as a bedroom loft above. The living space is well accessorized with photos and more to create a sense that this family is well established in their new home.

Flyin’ West is an eye-opening selection that explores a rich time in African-American history. Atlanta-based playwright Cleage saw her drama commissioned and produced by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 1992. The play has been produced by hundreds of theaters throughout the country, including a Kennedy Center production in Washington, D.C., in 1994.

In this story, Nicodemus is a paradise for free black property owners who want to escape the suffocating Jim Crow Laws of the south. But in Cleage’s tale, the sisters’ new way of life is threatened by forces both within their family and by greedy land speculators from the outside.

You’ll have to see the play to find out how the sisters carry on and resolve these conflicts in a satisfying manner.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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