Fly – A Cliff Notes History of the Tuskegee Airmen

Fly, currently playing at Ford’s Theater, is a 90 minute 1 act historical drama of the Tuskegee Airmen from basic training through the bombing of Berlin during World War II. It’s best described as a cliff notes version of that history with much of the struggle and adversity these men faced in achieving their success understated. It is all there, but the issues of racism these men faced is not laid as bare as it could have been.

When the four airmen we follow through the show arrive at basic training they are confronted by a staff sargeant that is right out of central casting. Sure he uses a racial slur towards them and says he wants to see more than 69% of the trainess wash out. Is this racism, or is this simply a staff sargeant being a staff sargeant? Watch any military movie and you’d see similar talk, whether that movie is Full Metal Jacket or Stripes. Of course it is racism, but only because as an audience we know the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Moreover, our four airmen seemed more concerned about engaging in fights with each other over preceived insults to their hometowns and each others capabilities than to the racism they faced. There seemed to be such a simple way to address this fault in the script even if it wasn’t historically accurate. Add white trainees and see the advantages they were receiving, see the disparity of the treatment by the staff sargeant.

The first moment the racism was truly laid out was a brief moment when the four airmen try to enter a bar for a beer and are told to enter through the back door. Unfortunately, it was followed up with the four airmen drinking soda, singing songs and again turning on one of their fellow trainees who they discovered was only 17 and ineligible to be in the military. In another scene, one of the four airmen, a slick Chicago native named W.W. is made the leader of the cadets to the dismay of the others. The scene culminates with another airmen named Oscar and W.W. throwing a medicine ball back and forth at each other with as much power as they can muster and culminates with W.W. finally admitting he was made the cadet leader in order to create dissent amongst the airmen and make it less likely they would succeed in completing their training. But like before, this window into the racism they were facing was quickly shut and forgotten the rest of the play.

This isn’t to say that the actors did not do well. They handled the script aptly. It is just unfortunate that the shows author decided that the audience knew the story and decided to shorthand much of the story with that knowledge. It is even more unfortunate considering the show was a 90 minute show with no intermission.

The story took a turn though in the last 30 minutes, and the best 30 minutes of the show. The airmen are now flying missions in Europe, escorting bombers. These flights, like all flights in the show, were represented by the actors sitting in chairs on the stage with large video screens of clouds whipping by that surrounded the stage. For this last thirty minutes the set was accompanied by a smoke machine making the stage look like a cloud, sounds of gunfire and explosions represented by strobbing lights. The scene opens with the airmen leading a bomber to safety. Of course one of the bomber pilots is a racist and leads to the highlight of the show, where the bomber pilots ask the Tuskegee Airmen to escort them on a bombing trip to Berlin. After accepting the assignment W.W. and our storyteller/Tuskegee Airmen Chet Simpkins lead the two bomber pilots through what can best be described as a humorous hazing ritual. This was the first and only time in the show where our heros directly address the sentiments of racism they were faced with and is the best scene of the show.

The show also features an extremely talented tap dancer who is suppose to represent the emotions that the Airmen are experiencing but can’t express. He was to be the emotion, rage and reaction I felt was missing from the show. And no matter how talented he was, and he was, it still came across as a device to fill time between scenes and to assist the actors with costume changes on stage.

All that being said, I still found the show entertaining. The moments of humor were genuine and the emotion in the last thirty minutes was sincere. The script itself just lacked some of the meat that was available to it as a true story.

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