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A CurtainUp Review

Tuskegee, Alabama. 1943. We had all just entered history's river. We were all so young and none of us had any idea to where or how far its current would take us. Or for how long. We just knew, each and every single one of us, that we had one dream, to be a flyer. — Chet
Brooks Brantley (Photo: Jim Cox)
Trey Elllis and Ricardo Khan's Fly lands at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street with the real-life story of the the first African American Army Air Corps fighters, dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen. Directed by Khan, this memory play invites you on a journey that takes you from Washington, D.C in 2009 to Tuskegee, Alabama, in the early 1940s, to the Ramitelli Air Base, Southern Italy. It wonderfully incorporates the West African story-telling tradition, some top-notch tap dancing, and many projection videos of famous civil rights leaders from the 1950s and 60s.

Okay, there's already a long-running Off Broadway show,Black Angels Over Tuskegee that celebrates these exceptional aviators. But Fly, which hails from the Pasadena Playhouse, comes with its own energies and takes a very different tack to the Tuskegee Airmen legend I reviewed six years ago. The smooth fluidity of this theater work is studded with jazz by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, as well as the Andrews Sisters' delicious ditty, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."

The hoofing in this piece is superb. And though many in the ensemble are first-rate dancers, it's the Tap Griot figure (Omar Edwards) who's the virtuoso here. With his dynamic tap dance routines, he expresses with his feet what cannot be spoken in words by the cadets. After all, the shadow of Jim Crow still existed in America in the early 1940s and African American cadets learned quickly to be guarded in their speech during their aviation training.

If the Tap Griot anchors the piece, the cadets are the dynamos that make it spin. All four —Chet, Oscar, J. Allen, and W.W.— have sizable egos and bristle when their white instructors and the top brass treat them like second-class citizens, or worse. Ss the character Oscar puts it: "Y'all know a white general wrote a report saying, The Negro is incapable of manipulating the sophisticated machinery required for aviation." Yes, prejudice was afoot in the military world but that didn't stop these African Americans from pursuing their dream of flying.

The all-male acting ensemble is strong. Brooks Brantly impresses as the zoot-suiter W. W. Desmond Newson is well cast as the Harlem-born Chet is well-cast, Anthony Goes is utterly convincing as the tough-as-nails training instructor at Tuskegee, and Omar Edwards deserves nothing but kudos for his turn as the Tap Griot.

Beowulf Borritt's minimalist set design allows the focus to remain on the play itself. Its dominant image is a silhouette of a plane's propeller, set against ever-changing sky-scapes. Rui Rita's protean lighting shifts from dazzling bright to dimmer shades, and always serves the dramatic moment. Hope Clarke's staccato choreography has a powerful urgency in its rhythms and remarkably reflects the cadet's interior emotional weather. And Toni-Leslie James' costumes, mostly made-up of flight suits and heavy leather bomber jackets, do the job.

Fly is more than entertaining. Its' a real slice of history that anybody over 10 can enjoy. It's deeply affecting, often witty, and has some amazing tap dancing that ideally punctuates this true story about the Tuskegee Airme who flew over 200 combat missions on the European stage during World War II?

Fly by Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis
Directed by Ricardo Khan
Cast: Brooks Brantly (W.W.), Ross Cowan (Shaw), Omar Edwards (Tap Griot), Anthony J. Goes (Captain O'Hurley), Brandon Nagle (Reynolds), Desmond Newson (Chet), Damian Thompson (J. Allen), Terrell Wheeler (Oscar).
Sets: Beowulf Borritt
Composer and Sound Designer: John Gromada
Lighting: Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot
Choreographer: Hope Clarke
Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Stage Manager: Kelli Karen
New Victory Theater, at 209 West 42^nd Street. For tickets, phone 646.223.3010 or visit .
From 3/11/16; closing 3/27/16.
Friday, Saturday @ 7pm; Saturday matinees @ 2pm; Sunday matinees @ 3pm.
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/13/16
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