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Flyin' West
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Pearl Cleage

At: American Blues Theater, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-654-3103;; $19-$39. Runs through: Nov. 3

Pearl Cleage's 1992 Flyin' West is her first full-length play, which is apparent from its simple dramatic development and structure.

Indeed, the major event of Act II is so strongly telegraphed in advance that it plays out as comic, whether or not that was Cleage's intent. The play's popular appeal comes from its feisty, folksy, often funny and sometimes ferocious female characters, all very well portrayed in this production under veteran director Chuck Smith.

Most of Cleage's plays concern "the intersection of sexism and racism" as it relates the Black community, according to the Lisa M. Anderson book Black Feminism in Contemporary Drama, among other works. Flyin' West is true to form, although it has an historic setting: the all-Black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, which developed in post-Civil War America, when the Homestead Acts fueled Western expansion. By 1898 ( the play's setting ), adoptive sisters Sophie Washington ( Tiffany Oglesby ) and Fannie Dove ( Sydney Charles ) successfully farm several hundred acres. "This is the land that makes us free women," Sophie declares.

Grandmotherly Miss Leah ( Joslyn Jones ), born a slave, owns the adjoining farm, but is staying with Sophie and Fannie when youngest sister Minnie Dove Charles ( Tiffany Renee Johnson ) visits with her husband, the educated New Orleans Creole poet Frank Charles ( Wardell Julius Clark ). They've been living in England where Frank praises the absence of "colored" society. In Nicodemus, money-strapped Frank is interested to find white land speculators offering $500 an acre, because Minnie has a deed to one-third of the family farm. It's also quickly apparent that Frank physically abuses Minnie. What to do? "There are no laws to protect a woman from her husband," Sophie again declares. "It isn't a crime until he kills her."

Flyin' West isn't subtle; sometimes one wants to hiss the villain and cheer the hero. Fortunately, the women are appealing and sympathetic, allowing one to endorse the frontier justice of their final triumph. Lest anyone thing Cleage's views of men are entirely one-sided, she offers a counterpoint to Frank Charles in Wil Parish ( Henri Watkins ), a rough-hewn but soft-spoken man who patiently courts Fannie with flowers and respect. One wishes Cleage had brought this sweet romance to some conclusion.

Grant Sabin's scenic design provides a neat, clapboard house interior typical of the play's setting, not fancy but furnished with taste and spotlessly clean. Lily Grace Walls supplies charming period-accurate costumes, some plain and some fancy. Sound designer Rick Sims' prairie winds frequently howl, yet no one closes close the door!

Although Nicodemus had a checkered history and only brief glory, the Homestead Acts did encourage women and Black Americans to access free Federal lands, allowing some to realize a free and better future, such as idealized in Flyin' West.

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