It's an ill war that blows nobody good. "Black Eagles," Leslie Lee's historical play about the Tuskegee Airmen that opened last night at Ford's Theatre, benefits from its unsettling timeliness. With men flying bombing missions in the Persian Gulf, and considerable African American opposition to the war, Lee's story about black pilots who want the opportunity to kill for their country is relevant with a vengeance. It's a shame that the play itself is listless, not up to Lee's usual work and certainly not up to its great subject.
During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen -- known to the white brass as an "experiment" -- flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and 200 successful bomber escort missions. They destroyed or did damage to hundreds of German aircraft and ground transportation units and performed the considerable feat of sinking a destroyer with machine gun fire alone. In short, they proved the armed forces bigots wrong. Despite this, they had to endure the indignity of segregation until 1948, when the Air Force became the first branch of the services to integrate. In 1945, a riot erupted over the segregated officers club at Freeman Army Air Field in Indiana, which resulted in the replacement of Col. Robert Selway as commander with then-Col. (now retired Lt. Gen.) Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Davis gave a stoic account of his ordeal at West Point and in the military -- the fact, for example, that no one at the academy spoke to him outside of the lines of duty and instruction for his whole four years there. There is nothing like this awful, shameful tale in "Black Eagles." The men sit around and discuss their anger at the segregation, they jaw and joke and quarrel, they let the two white officers who come by to integrate on their own know that Things Are Not Right, and later, with these officers, they run offstage to attempt to enter that segregated officers club. They also fly missions and rejoice in their victories: "Praise God, I had my first friggin' kill! ... Praise God, that's what this friggin' war's about!"
Though Lee shows what the men are up against, he never gives any sense of their taking control of their own destinies, except in that attack on the officers club; he doesn't even show that the attack resulted in Selway's replacement by Davis. Nor do the men interact with any complexity: The characters are ill-differentiated, defined by gimmicks (one has a ventriloquist's dummy, one is a poet etc.) The characters in the movie "Glory" were stock, but each had his individual response to military service, and you wondered what was going to happen to them. Charles Fuller gave the sociological observations of "A Soldier's Play" a dramatic engine in the form of a murder mystery. But Lee can't get any plot going, and his characters react to their war pretty much identically: They want to prove themselves, they want to fight, they want to kill.
There were ironies and ambiguities in the situation of the Tuskegee Airmen. War, though terrible, is not an entirely unbeneficent social force. Historian Bruce Catton has made the point that the presence of black soldiers in the Union Army made it difficult to disenfranchise them as citizens once the Civil War was over. Military historian John Keegan has called war "a form of masculine self-expression," and for the Tuskegee Airmen, being a warrior involved not only "proving" themselves, as white men felt called to, but also proving themselves to white men. Against all of this you have the opinion of many blacks today that military service is not a triumph of integration but a form of social oppression. None of these complexities is present in "Black Eagles."
The production has had some recent cast replacements, and on Tuesday night it felt under-rehearsed. Undoubtedly the cast will settle into a comfortable ensemble as the run continues. And presumably the sound will be adjusted so that it doesn't overwhelm the actors' voices. The play unfolds on a terrific set by Charles McClennahan: a Quonset hut whose proportions and perspectives also suggest an airstrip, and whose revolving overhead fans echo the movement of propellers.
In the play's last scene, set in 1989, a group of reunited Eagles toasts Gen. Colin Powell. It's a jingoistic moment -- a real theater moment -- but it underscores the play's simple view of the armed services as basically a good place for black Americans. When one of the men, faced with segregation, wonders whether they're on the right side, another has the last word with, "We're on the right side. They just don't know it yet." It's a good line, but it sweeps a lot of issues under the carpet.
Black Eagles, by Leslie Lee. Conceived and directed by Ricardo Khan. Set, Charles McClennahan; lights, Shirley Prendergast, sound, Rob Gorton; music design, Robert La Pierre; costumes, Beth A. Ribblett. With Graham Brown, Norman Bush, Brian Evaret Chandler, Milton Elliott, Larry Green, Michael Barry Greer, Kevin Jackson, Lawrence James, Illeana Douglas, Damien Leake, David Rainey, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Scott Whitehurst. At Ford's Theatre through March 3.