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Monday, 21 October 2013 11:33

‘Fly’ soars in the rarified air of excellence

Written by Tina Farmer
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David Pegram as Chet Simpkins in FLY at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
David Pegram as Chet Simpkins in FLY at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings history to life with the evocative brilliance of "Fly," a tribute to the Tuskegee Airman. Over the past few years, this previously overlooked corps of African-American airmen has finally begun to receive the hard-earned credit they deserve. The Repertory Theater of St. Louis' production may be the most movingly beautiful and interpretive ovation yet.

A deceptively simple set and World War II era music establish the period of the production. Metal chairs and trunks are the only set pieces, and large projection screens suspended over the stage complete the design. The simplicity belies the vibrant production while enabling the actors to quickly and efficiently establish scene and location. The lighting is moody and atmospheric, and complemented by video projections that powerfully recreate the feeling of flight, particularly during maneuvers such as rolling, diving, or attacking enemy planes.

This story focuses on the recruitment, training, and crucial mission of a single class of airmen, enhancing the development of strong, recognizable characters that ring true to the stories provided by the few airmen still living. The show opens and closes in current time, with the framing scenes set at President Obama's recognition ceremony for the Tuskegee Airmen.

David Pegram is Chet Simpkins, the story's narrator and an honored guest at the ceremony. It is through his voice and recollections that the audience experiences the story. He introduces us to W.W., Oscar, and J. Allen, the other members of his recruiting class. Skillfully portrayed by Eddie R. Brown III, Will Cobbs, and Terrell Donnell Sledge, each man embodies various ambitions and personality types with distinction rather than caricature.

Pegram's Simpkins is good natured, if a bit naïve. An undereducated young man, Simpkins worked his way up from janitor to licensed pilot before being recruited to Tuskegee. He is also underage to serve, a secret his team decides to keep. Brown's W.W. is flashy and witty, but also reveals a deep understanding of the time's prejudice. He knows he has been chosen to lead his squad with the expectation of failure, and his resolve to succeed is expressed with deeply effective frustration. Cobbs' Oscar and Sledge's J. Allen are also fully realized characters, with ambitions and hopes that show, rather than tell, the struggles these men faced as well as their determination to rise above.

The four men work well together, making it easy for the audience to feel genuine empathy and to want each to succeed. The ensemble cast of Greg Brostrom, Timothy Sekk, and Cary Donaldson also comport themselves well. Taking on various roles, they demonstrate prejudice, fear, and acceptance in measured doses, effectively representing the slow social change that was, at least in part, a result of the Tuskegee "experiment." Prior to their success, the prevailing opinion was that these men were not intelligent, courageous, or patriotic enough to serve at the highest level.

The distinguishing element that sets this play apart from other presentations of the Tuskegee Airmen's story, however, is the character listed as The Tap Griot. This mostly voiceless character provides a complementary tap narration that adds resonance and depth to the story. The effect is visceral and compelling, and Omar Edwards is flawless as the interpretative element of the show. When The Tap Griot does speak, it is in poetry that is as subtly restrained as his tapping is expressive.

The show moves continuously and fluidly from scene to scene under the sure direction of Ricardo Khan, who co-authored "Fly" with Trey Ellis. Incorporation of dance, pantomime, and a clever use of the stage elements captures the camaraderie of service, the elation of flight, and the fear of war. Well-timed sound effects, the aforementioned video, and the lack of an intermission lend an immersive feel to the production that  a strong response from the audience. The performance I attended ended with a spontaneous and well-deserved standing ovation.

More than a simple retelling of history, "Fly" captures the imagination, allowing a modern audience a glimpse inside the African-American servicemen's life during World War II. Running through November 10th, this unique and powerful production is a must see theatrical experience that may leave you breathless, with a newfound appreciation for the airmen and our shared history. For more information, call the box office at (314) 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

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