Tap is an earthy, feet-on-the-ground style of dance, yet it helps lift the drama “Fly” at Ford’s Theatre. Omar Edwards plays a figure called the Tap Griot, and as the show’s opening montage of black American history plays out on screens behind him, Edwards pounds hard, fast rhythms of agony and anger on the floor.
Not that “Fly” is a musical. Like the recent film “Red Tails,” it’s a chronicle of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black World War II pilots who broke racial barriers in the U.S. military.
In the broad-appeal staging of this action-packed, 90-minute history, the Tap Griot is just one of writer-director Ricardo Khan’s conspicuously theatrical devices. Others include the bombastic sound and the projections that look like the view through cockpit windows. The streamlined design by Beowulf Borritt (with highly coordinated projections by Clint Allen, lights from Rui Rita and sound from John Gromada) goes far to suggest that a couple of guys dressed in pilots’ gear and tilting around in chairs are flying a hazardous mission toward Berlin.
The tale of the Tuskegee Airmen — black men fighting for a country that hadn’t yet given them equal rights — is recycled terrain for the “Fly” writers. Khan brought his production of “Black Eagles” to Ford’s in 1989; “Fly” co-author Trey Ellis wrote the 1995 HBO film “The Tuskegee Airmen.”
Their current project began as a show for school audiences commissioned by Lincoln Center, and while “Fly” still has that simplified, everyone-can-learn-something-here aura, it brings an enjoyable snap to its mission. The story is distilled to the experiences of four men enduring the withering training of their white, racist captain, whose insults include just a single use of the n-word but a steady cascade of domineering attitude (delivered with dripping disgust by James Konicek).
The airmen are a personable lot, conveniently representing different regions and types. Eric Berryman plays a Chicago lady-killer, entering in a zoot suit and keeping up an appealingly self-satisfied charm offensive. Mark Hairston is cool and dignified as a “race man,” though the character’s self-description doesn’t lead to as much hot rhetoric as you’d expect. Damian Thompson plays a high-spirited recruit from the West Indies, and Christopher Wilson brings youth and rectitude to his portrayal of a precocious 17-year-old who already has his single-engine pilot’s license.
The script keeps this foursome at one another’s throats as they confront the indignities of training or being sent to the back entrance of an Alabama dive. The coping-with-racism scenes can feel like set pieces, yet they flash with resentment and often resolve with humor and charm, especially when white pilots come seeking the black men who have begun to perform so admirably under fire.
Obviously this is American history, lite division. But the shorthand doesn’t come across as wrong or cheap, and it’s reassuring to see that one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Roscoe C. Brown, is on board as a production adviser. With its noisy, visually swirling scenes of guys in chairs acting like they’re flying and Edwards lending emotional commentary with his feet, “Fly” hits its target as a user-friendly introduction.
by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. Directed by Ricardo Khan. Costumes, Toni-Leslie James; choreography, Hope Clark. With Matt Bassett and Clark Young. Through Oct. 21 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. About 90 minutes. Call 800-982-2787 or visit fords.org.