It’s not the most ambitious theatrical gambit you’ll see this fall, but Fly—a 90-minute window into the stories of the Tuskeegee Airmen—does bring one unexpected element to the Ford’s Theatre stage. That’s the ferocious, athletic dancing of Omar Edwards, whose character is described in the program as the evening’s Tap Griot, and who punctuates the evening’s narrative with rhythms ranging from haltingly contemplative to wrathfully rapid-fire.
That narrative brings together four candidates for the famous cohort of World War II pilots who broke racial barriers and helped set the table for the civil-rights struggles of the ’50s and ’60s—specifically a quartet of fighter-pilot trainees hoping to earn their wings at the Alabama training grounds of the 332nd Fighter Group, as the Tuskeegee pilots were formally known. There’s a zoot-suited Chicago smoothie (Eric Berryman), a boisterous Caribbean cutup (Damian Thompson), an earnest Midwestern “race man” (Mark Hairston) burdened with the sense that he’s the face of black America, and a fresh-faced Harlem kid (Christopher Wilson) determined to prove himself as big a man as any of them. For dramatic tension—and to represent the very real racism the historical Tuskeegee Airmen faced within the Armed Forces and without—there’s James Konicek as an embittered flight instructor prone to withering comments about flying monkeys.
And there is, as you might imagine, a certain amount of flying—or at least a certain amount of sitting around in chairs, rocking intensely back and forth, while scattered projections and a vividly realized soundscape suggest the sights and sounds of training flights and dogfights. Ricardo Khan’s production can be repetitive, what with four protagonists to follow, but by the evening’s end it’s achieved something like uplift—and its final trick, again involving those all-enveloping projections, is a stirring one indeed. As theater, it’s straight-up-the-middle storytelling; as an audience-friendly primer on an important chapter in American history, it’s doing its job rather more effectively.