With its energetic, all-male cast, dancing and multi-sensory special effects, Fly grabs your attention and holds it tight. This play also offers a creative and sensitive portrayal of historical events that kids will enjoy.

View Photo Gallery: Several Tuskegee airman attended a pre-show reception of “Fly,” an original play written about the World War II experiences of four African-American officers and pilots.

Fly tells the story of four Tuskegee Airmen as they prepare for and serve in World War II. The play’s dialogue is straightforward and humorous at times, but dancing gives Fly tempo and an additional layer of emotion. A hip-hop tap dancer weaves in and out of scenes and the main characters do frat-style stepping. Ricardo Khan, Fly’s co-author and director, explains why he included a tap dancer (known as the tap griot) in the play: “...because these guys were young and in the army, they had emotions they couldn’t display. And because they were black, they knew they had the burden/motivation of representation for the whole race.” Hence, Khan sought to express through tap what the airmen could not express through words. For example, when one character is furiously angry at his commanding officer, the tap griot’s feet explosively move.

My favorite part of the play is when one of the pilots is wounded in battle. Over the lonely sounds of the wind, an airman sings to his wounded friend in the other plane. We rarely see men, let alone African American men, depicted in such a compassionate light.  In the darkened theater, I saw at least one audience member cry during this scene.

Juxtaposed against Ford Theatre’s lovely, Victorian architecture, Fly makes excellent use of modern, theatrical effects. Several large screens hang above the stage, positioned like windows in a cockpit, showing images seen from the sky and, finally, as a nod to African American history yet to come, images from Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Departing from the wartime jazz and props present throughout the play, Fly ends with contemporary music and photography projected onto the screens. A central photograph shows a woman’s green, gloved hand holding a Bible, with a man’s caramel-colored hand resting atop the battered book. Inspired by seeing the Tuskegee Airmen honored at President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration, Khan wanted to show how the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for the election of the first African American president.

His twofold aim in creating the play was “to turn people on to the magic of theater and to expose people to the Tuskegee Airmen story in a way that would make them proud.” 

Fly was originally produced in 2008 as a children’s play for Lincoln Center. Khan wanted to tell this important, historical story, but “not make it like a history lesson.”  To ensure accuracy, Khan enlisted Tuskegee airman Roscoe Brown to serve as production adviser for Fly.  A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and former president of the Bronx Community College, Brown is also a Washington, D.C., native.

Matthew Nwaneri, 11, appreciated Fly’s educational aspect, stating that it was “interesting because I didn’t really know that African Americans weren’t allowed to fly with the other soldiers.” Nate Nwaneri, 13, enjoyed the play because of the “thrilling special effects.” 

In fact, action and history were also among the actors’ favorite aspects of working on the play.  Eric Berryman, who played the Airman from Chicago, enjoyed working on the play because of “all the action elements” and the ability to “engulf myself in history.”

My 13-year-old, J, was concerned about the prominence of dance in Fly.  J thought that, because African Americans have been stereotyped as singers and dancers, the seriousness of the play might be undermined if audiences absorbed only the singing and dancing, but missed the message. When I shared this critique with Khan, he said, “The Tuskegee Airmen were capable of anything.  So where there may have been a time where all people saw of us was singing and dancing, now we also have basketball and the White House and the Attorney General’s office. So we can release ourselves from the stereotypes that other people gave us, being able to freely express all of who we are.”

Cautionary notes

There are brief scenes with flashing lights.

What to do after the play

Your tickets to Fly entitle you to visit Petersen House (a.k.a., “The House Where Lincoln Died”) and The Center for Education and Leadership, both of which are directly across the street from Ford’s.

At Peterson’s, you can learn about Lincoln’s final hours and the international response to his death. In the Center for Education and Leadership, there is an excellent exhibit on the hunt for Lincoln’s assassins, and you can see bits of rope from the nooses that hung the assassination conspirators as well as excerpts of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. (Booth expected to be venerated like Brutus).  The Center for Education and Leadership also includes a special exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen which describes race relations in the 1940s and the operations in which the pilots participated.

Fly is ideal for ages 10 and up. It runs until Oct. 21 at Ford’s Theatre.  Tickets, which range from $25 to $69, may be purchased at www.fords.org or by calling Ticketmaster at 1.800.982.2367.

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