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‘Fly’ taps into Tuskegee story

Donte Bonner, 
Carter Redwood, Donald Paul
 and Robert Karma Robinson star as Tuskegee airmen under the tutelage of instructor Michael MacCauley (on platform).   PHOTO BY SCOTT TREADWAY/Treadshots Donte Bonner, 
Carter Redwood, Donald Paul
 and Robert Karma Robinson star as Tuskegee airmen under the tutelage of instructor Michael MacCauley (on platform). PHOTO BY SCOTT TREADWAY/Treadshots

“Fly,” the story of the Tuskegee airmen, would have been worth a $40 ticket if it had ended after four minutes.

For those of us unfamiliar with a griot, the dance man opened our eyes. As director Amy Jones explained in her playbill notes, griots in West African culture traditionally passed down the community’s history “through memory, reconciliation and artistic.”
It’s a mesmerizing experience to watch and hear the amazing Mr. Edwards perform the opening of “Fly” — through his feet, facial expression and body movement. Through the first 10 minutes, Edwards had already portrayed a train, a plane and a sliding subway door. More than that, throughout the play, the Tap Griot supplies emotional ballast. If the four Tuskegee airmen are too self-conscious or self-possessed to express sorrow, anger or joy, Edwards, who also choreographed, does it for them. He’s waltz slow and lightning fast. He whirls, he twirls, he slides, he stomps. He channels Marcel Marseau and Gregory Hines. He’s a percussion section unto himself. Speaking no lines, he says it all.
Oscar (Donte Bonner), from a small town in Iowa; J. Allen (Donald Paul), from the West Indies; Chet (Carter Redwood), from Harlem; and WW (Robert Karma Robinson) are among the first black cadets to train for their pilot’s wings at a U.S. Air Force base in the early part of World War II. It’s 1943 in Tuskegee, Ala.
“I’m going to fly because they say I can’t,” Oscar says.
As the cadets’ instructor, O’Hurley (Michael MacCauley) is a skeptical taskmaster. When he takes the trainees one by one on their first solo flight, he pronounces their performance as “pitiful,” “pathetic” and “God-awful.”
As WW, the cadet leader, Robinson is filled with bravado but we see in a later scene when he has a chance to call home that he’s alone and vulnerable.
Another amazing set by Dennis Maulden has the audience looking through the cockpit of the fighter plane the cadets are learning to fly. The story takes us through their rigorous classroom training and their test flights and on to combat over Berlin — where they take on the withering firepower of Luftwaffe. Three of four win their wings. Two of three make it home.
Using only chairs and Maulden’s set enhanced by the work of lighting designer Stephen Terry and sound man William Burns, the staging makes us feel the movement of flying, first in the training scenes. Through strobes, blasts and tracers, we feel the tension and danger of the dogfighting over Germany. The Tuskegee airmen, chosen by a bomber crew that has benefited from their skill and bravery in an earlier sortie, fly protection for the bombing run, at mortal risk.
They prove themselves in both wars, as one real Tuskegee airman put it years later — with their courage in the air against enemy fire and character on the ground against the bigotry in their own country.
Although not on purpose, the 2015 season has given us something to think about. In a summer when America still wrestles in our politics and culture with a racial divide, the Playhouse has staged two plays that carry us back to America’s struggle with race relations post-World War II. Fortunately, both “Fly” and “Driving Miss Daisy” are in the end stories of hope and redemption, with a dollop of fun and a big helping of style.
Running a quick 90 minutes with no intermission, “Fly” will have you leaning into every yaw, pitch and roll, rising to cheer an amazing tap man and saluting a superb cast that soars to the sky.


Fly opens runs through Sept. 27 at the Main Stage of the Flat Rock Playhouse. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call the Playhouse box office at 828-693-0731 or visit