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Flyin' West

by Pearl Cleage

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1342

SHOWING : July 17, 2005 - July 31, 2005



In the late 1800's a group of African-American women struggle to maintain theor homestead in Kansas.

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Lazy Writing 101
by Dedalus
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
True Colors Theatre Company, as part of the National Black Arts Festival, has revived Pearl Cleage’s frontier drama “Flyin’ West” on the Woodruff Arts Center’s Main Stage. Since I moved to Atlanta after its premier on the smaller Hertz Stage, this was my first encounter with this piece.

I found it a well-acted, well-produced and compelling evening in the theatre, but I also have some strong reservations. It contains four of the best-written female characters you’re likely to see this season. It also contains two male characters straight out of 19th-century melodrama – a villain who does everything except twirl his mustache, and a neighbor who has more virtue than Dudley Do-Right. It’s as if the women are from one play and the men from another. It all comes across as a tad schizophrenic.

The four women are sharing a homestead in Kansas in 1899, when many ex-slaves left the south to try to create new lives. Once there, they find themselves subject to the same prejudices and Jim Crow laws they were fleeing. Still and all, they persevere with strength and not a little humor, even though history tells us they are doomed to failure.

Against this compelling background, Ms. Cleage has chosen to write a trite and squalid little domestic drama, in which the youngest sister returns home with her husband, a half-white bully who is trying to “pass,” who literally steals the “Deed to the Ranch” in order to make his fortune. To save their family and their home, the women conspire to … well, like in all bad melodrama, you can guess what happens.

This tactic is a shame, because the set-up is so good, the women are written so well, and the actresses are so compelling. The situation is rife with potential – I can think of at least twelve plots off the top of my head that can explore these characters, what they faced, how they survived, and open up a page of history that had previously been obscure to us. But instead, we’re given this plot we have seen a million times before. It’s as if an enterprising Native American has chosen to tell the story of Custer using the Marx Brothers as a model.

And, unfortunately, because it is melodrama, it is also fun to watch. We cry in outrage at every villainy on display! We cheer when the bad guy gets his comeuppance!! The actor even gets hissed during the Curtain Call!!! What Larks!!!! What crap…

When I started writing this down, I was merely feeling irritated at an author’s choices. But the more I think about it, the angrier I become. The theatre has a dearth of voices telling African American stories. But with the rise of such new and compelling voices as Kia Corthron on the scene, it is a mystery why True Colors would revive this very cliched story as part of the National Black Arts Festival. Domestic Melodrama is, after all, whiter than a New England Country Club!

It also angers me that four wonderful actresses are wasted here. Pat Bowie, Crystal Fox, Kinnik, and Dawn Ursula all show us they are better than this material. They create fully-dimensional women who are compelling, interesting, funny, strong, and fully fully human. So why are they sharing the stage with these cartoon figures whose only function is to move the plot? This is just Lazy Writing 101.

-- Brad Rudy (



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