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Review: Tuskegee Airmen Fight to Fly in WWII

Date: Tuesday, February 16, 2010, 5:48 am

By: Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” is a serious history lesson told with humor.

Based on true events, this powerful play, on view at off-Broadway’s St. Luke’s Theatre, is about brotherhood among the segregated World War II pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. These men distinguished themselves with honor despite disdainful treatment by their own government, the American public and the military.

Using the story of a group of determined cadets as they go through aviator training and then military assignments, playwright and director Layon Gray vividly depicts the struggles and achievements of the first black military airmen.

By way of introduction, a young, unnamed narrator (Antonio D. Charity) says he will tell a story “as it was told to me.” He explains, with heavy irony, that the U.S. Congress had done a study on the “Negro Soldier,” finding that “he was lazy, had a small brain, there is no way possible that he could learn to do high-tech work especially fly a plane.”

We then meet six would-be cadets in a waiting room, eager for their chance to take the qualifying exam to join what was then called the Army Air Forces. Most are soon revealed to be college graduates, and all have an excellent grasp of the subject matter in the aircraft manual they have studied.

The exam location, an air base a long way off in Utah, is just the first of many indignities the military will put these men through, but they cope with humor and fortitude. Their goal is to get to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, a segregated training base built by African-Americans, where they can finally learn to fly airplanes and realize their dream to fight for their country.

Gray portrays cadet Quentin Dorsey, a likable man hiding a disability and whose diary of his military experience forms the narrative. The author has a natural feel for dialogue and has created seven distinct, believable young men — all well-acted by the spirited cast.

Thom Scott II plays Quentin’s fun-loving, yet protective older brother, Abe. Gray and Scott project a warmly competitive sibling camaraderie that resonates throughout the play.

Cadet Elijah Sams, a famous, retired boxer who plans to someday become a teacher, is played with grace and dignity by Lamman Rucker. Elijah takes a leadership role within the group, constantly reminding his comrades that they are “fighting for freedom.”

Derek Shaun ably plays the one sour note, an aloof, unfriendly cadet. Shaun makes his unpleasant character compelling, although his eventual back-story revelation comes as a tension-reliever.

The cast is rounded out by Demetrius Grosse as gambler Percival Nash, and David Wendell Boykins as music-loving Theodore Franks. The white commander, Major Roberts, is played with a testy but compassionate air by Rich Skidmore.

The play may be a bit too long, but it is well-staged and the characters so realistic that the audience can’t help but be thoroughly moved by the time the narrator reaches the end of the journal.

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