Melodrama, that beleaguered and belittled staple of soap operas and bodice-rippers, gets a good name in the flamboyant "Flyin' West," Pearl Cleage's frontier saga about a potentially all-black Kansas settlement. The show features a dastardly villain and heroic women who wrap themselves in the bold cloth of identity politics; it ain't exactly subtle. It's sentimental, manipulative and far too entertaining to resist.
The play was a crowd-pleaser at the Kennedy Center a decade ago, and Cleage's singular mixture of crude tactics and graceful, dignified insights is working again these days at the Lincoln Theatre. The performance by the True Colors Theatre Company is perfectly modulated: director Andrea Frye and her ensemble know when to pluck at the heartstrings and how to make the audience gasp in outrage at the scoundrel's vicious behavior. It's a western -- just look at all that open sky behind the prairie house loosely framed in by set designer R. Paul Thomason -- with all the rooting interest that traditionally implies.
The twist is that the good-guy cowboys are African American women, most of them single. They've fled the lawlessness of Memphis to homestead in Kansas, and their sense of freedom is newfound and precarious. The tone is set the moment the play begins as Sophie Washington, played with gruff wariness by the petite Crystal Fox, cocks her rifle one-handed, scanning the horizon for danger.
It comes, all right, in the form of Sophie's mulatto brother-in-law, Frank Charles. You can tell Frank will be trouble just from the high sheen on his top hat. (In contrast, Sophie wears beat-up trousers under her dusty floor-length work skirt.) Frank is a dandy, a poet, a reckless gambler who likes to pass for white while distancing himself from his wife, Minnie. He's elegant and despicable from top to bottom, and J. Paul Nicholas plays the part with entitlement and disdain, raking in hisses all the way.
Melodrama is not for every taste, and some viewers will perhaps be put off as Cleage works in strokes that read like skywriting. If Frank is overdrawn, then so is Wil Parish, Frank's opposite number. Wil is courting Fannie, the middle of three sisters (Sophie's the oldest, Minnie's the youngest), and he's as simple and good as Frank is baroque and bad. Cleage makes Wil a cross between a tireless plow horse and gentle guard dog, and E. Roger Mitchell's performance, a touch too bashful and neutered, contributes to the impression of Wil as a non-threatening dolt.
Then there's Miss Leah, the cranky, grandmotherly figure who is the repository of colorful stories and agonizing histories, played with requisite tart majesty by Pat Bowie. And there's Cleage's shameless cheap cliffhanging as she ends an act with mayhem that includes a pointed rifle and a desperate cry of "I'm gonna have a baby!"
Still, Cleage uses her tools, blunt and otherwise, with formidable skill. The comic relief is reliably effective, the dialogue is bright, the reflective speeches are engaging, and the playwright's mind moves intriguingly between historical material and contemporary patterns. All of that makes it easy to respond to the increasingly palpable joy and anger that fuel the play.
So does the sure-footed performance by True Colors, which is beginning its second year as a national troupe with dual residence in Washington and Atlanta. Kenny Leon, director of the recent Broadway revival of "Raisin in the Sun" and August Wilson's upcoming "Radio Golf," is the artistic director; Atlanta's Alliance Theatre commissioned Cleage's play when Leon ran the place a dozen years ago. He has put the play in good hands: Frye and company leave the audience with a warm, satisfied feeling -- the feeling of having been entertained, and not mindlessly.
Flyin' West by Pearl Cleage. Directed by Andrea Frye. With Dawn Ursula and Kinnik. Lighting design, Ken Yunker; costumes, Reggie Ray; sound design, Ashley Turner. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Sept. 25 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit www.truecolorstheatrecompany.com or www.thelincolntheatre.org.