Black Angels Over Tuskegee is a deeply wonderful production that takes an important historical event, presents it in a very intimate manner, and demands a personal response to its characters. While initially I had reservations about a play written and directed by an artist who is also prominent within the cast, this production took my breath away and quashed every hesitation. The sheer depth and emotional power of this cast creates an authentically fulfilling and glorious night of theatre that honors an impressive group of men, the Tuskegee Airmen.
During World War II, the Army Air Corps was forced by Congress to form an all-black combat unit and so established very restrictive requirements intended to defeat the initiative. Yet despite numerous and ongoing obstacles, between 1941-1946 nearly a thousand African American pilots surpassed the application requirements, were trained and received their wings at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. Despite resistance within the armed forces, they served with valor in the North African and Italian campaigns under the motto, "We do not hate those we fight, we do not love those we defend." It is an amazing story that, in the wrong hands, could be a stolid and cumbersome night of theatre collapsing under the weight of its own importance.
Instead writer-director Layon Gray takes his time in the first act to set up who these men are, and why what they are doing is so vital on a personal level as well as for the broader community of African Americans. After the narrator (a father talking to his son; as the character, Antonio Charity does some fine story work throughout) brings us into the world of the play, he steps out for much of the act, only returning when needed to fill in that which informs the play but would detract from the engaging and real interaction of this piece. Why he is so committed to the story becomes clear in its own time and in the right time for the play.
Act One is simply a room where six men are waiting for the examination that will determine if they are accepted to the program or not. However, through their figuring each other out, the audience forms its own attachments and opinions of these characters. The Southerners confuse the Northerners with their phrases, the brothers committed to serving together keep each other calm, and they become mostly a group as they bump up against each other's differences. Throughout there is tension: this is a group of individuals struggling to diffuse anxieties and ever aware of being judged. There is a quiet, steady strength to the structure of this act that makes the shifts in Act Two contrast all the more sharply.
From classic one-room drama, Act Two goes through various stages of training, into combat and through to its end. Their commanding officer (ably played by Rich Skidmore) makes a few brief appearances. The scenes become shorter and sharper, and make their points a bit more heavily. Stylistically as well there are unexpected additions—the realism suddenly sometimes gives way to some added symbolic movement. In a lesser production these shifts could be off-putting but here they drive the urgency—the desire these men have to achieve—all the more vividly. Precisely because Gray has taken the time to set up these characters and they are all so incredibly well acted, there is an audience craving to know what happens to each of them. The commanding ensemble of Gray, David Wendell Boykins, Demetrius Gross, Lamman Rucker, Thom Scott II, and Derek Shaun embody how deeply-felt, specific acting can grip an audience at a visceral level unlike any special effect or cool gimmick.
At intermission a guy sitting behind me said, "I feel like I haven't done anything with my life now"—not in a depressed way, but as a clearly impressed reaction to the lengths these men were going to accomplish their goals. And that may sum it up best, that there was a group of men who went so very far to prove themselves, as well as what their people could do—that it both insists on being remembered and poses the question: what are you doing? Black Angels Over Tuskegee brings that moment in history alive with honor and passion.