Crash and Burn: Fly's depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen falls flat

Crash and Burn: <i>Fly</i>'s depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen falls flat
Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Fly needs a little more lift.

The current offering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Fly, is a skillfully staged exercise in professional polish and precision. This account of America's first black pilots and their triumph over racial segregation during World War II employs a cunning integration of lighting, sound effects and music. The 90-minute, intermissionless work is highlighted by exciting aerial sequences during which rear-screen projection designs send the audience soaring into the sky.

But when the action was earthbound, my mind drifted to a much older play about adversity. Dore Schary's 1958 drama, Sunrise at Campobello, tells the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt's struggle with polio. When Sunrise won the Tony Award for Best Play, someone asked a Tony voter, "Did you really like that show?" "Not so much," the voter hedged, "but I liked FDR."

Surely we all can agree that the Tuskegee Airmen (the play's four characters stand in for the nearly 1,000 pilots who trained in the 1940s in Tuskegee, Alabama, thus giving them the sobriquet) deserve our gratitude and respect. Any attempt to honor the young fliers who confronted prejudice both at home and in Europe is commendable. But because Fly is more allegorical, playwrights Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan are not bound by the facts. By evening's end, we've actually learned precious little about the Airmen. Some of the more fanciful plot strands may succeed in eliciting knee-jerk laughter and tears, but there's more substance in the background article printed on the playbill than there is onstage.

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Loretto-Hilton Center

130 Edgar Road
Webster Groves, MO 63119

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: Webster Groves

Details

Fly
Through November 10 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves.
Tickets are $20 to $76.
Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

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Still another play comes to mind: Recall Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses that played the Rep ten years ago, complete with a large wading pool. Whenever Zimmerman's imagination ran dry, she put her actors into the pool. This presumably passed for theater, and everyone had a good time. Whenever the imagination flags in Fly, a metaphorical character named the "Tap Griot" pounds his way about the stage in loud tap-dancing routines. Fly might as well be subtitled "Savion Glover Joins the Air Force."

Although the show strives mightily to be different, we've already seen too much of this plot before — the petty internal bickering among the young airmen, the gruff flight instructor. (Fly sometimes feels as much like a tribute to old war movies like Twelve O'Clock High, Command Decision and A Guy Named Joe.) In this story about racial prejudice we hear one obligatory use of the "N" word — but only one, because more than one might actually elicit a raw emotional response from the viewer. Everything here is calculated for effect. While most plays and movies manipulate their audiences, it shouldn't be so transparent.

Let it be underscored that the Rep has given Fly a bang-up staging. The show looks great; the technical accomplishments often dazzle. The production arrives in St. Louis after several weeks in Cincinnati, so the seven-actor cast is honed to function as a smooth ensemble. Director Ricardo Khan keeps the action moving — literally. (Actors don't walk across the stage; they swivel and sway.)

That said, it should also be noted that on opening night, the moment the lights came up after a thundering ovation at the curtain call, various audience members were heard asking, "What's the score?"

"Nine to nothing in the sixth."

"The Cardinals are beating the Dodgers nine to nothing?!" asked another, followed by an incredulous, "That's what we missed while we were in here?"

And in a flash, Fly had already flown away.

 
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21 comments
A.M.Hach
A.M.Hach

I agreed with what was said about the history present in FLY. However, in my eyes the history that is present is enough. The prejudice that is faced by the four airman while in training, back in that time period was real, but I feel that they pulled back on that a little, only using the “N-world” once. Although I can understand why they would do so. I think that the the airman are more of a tool to show and tell about prejudice in the time period and how far we have come, rather than tell a true story of a Tuskegee Airman. In your review you also stated that the Tap Griot was an unnecessary part of the play, which I disagree with. I found that I rather liked the Tap Griot. I liked the way that the writers worked the Griot into the play, how he is a part of some scenes in the background tap dancing. At certain parts he helped to set the mode and was a unique part of the play. All in all I liked how the play was set up, the actors, and how it was carried out. I wouldn't mind watching Fly again and would recommend it looking for good entertainment.   

skylar.southard000
skylar.southard000

I disagree with most of the points in the riverfront review.  It made some good points but I believe that overall it was a pessimistically opinionated review.  The play did not contain a huge backstory to all of the characters lives, but I believe it contained enough to cause the viewer to understand what the character stood for and their beliefs.  

The play would get you pulled in with the tap griot and lights and sounds.  I believe it was a unique viewing experience because of all of these effects.  This article claims that the play was forgettable but i still remember all of it, some scenes down to the last word. My favorite part was after Oscar died and Chet asked W.W. was being so calm after his death. To this W.W. responded “ there are worse ways of dying then to fall out of heaven”  I thought this quote was so beautiful in the fact that it showed the passion for flying that all of these men had. The actors did so well in showing that to them they were honored to do what they love and fly for their rights and freedoms even if they ended up dying.  This play truly expressed the spirits of all of the brave african american men who fought two wars during this time, one for their country, and the other for there race.

I was truly inspired after this show and it opened my eyes to the ignorance of racism even more.  I thought the whole play was truly memorable.  Of course, you need to read up on the backstory of the tuskeegee airmen before hand, as the story does jump straight into the pilots themselves with almost no explanation, but overall the play  does an amazing job of expressing all the emotions experienced by these brave pilots.

morgan.beachum000
morgan.beachum000

I agreed with a lot of what you said.   You say that you don’t learn much from the play itself.  I did like some aspects of the play though.  I agree that there was a miniscule amount of information taught throughout the plays story.  The topic of the play is broad as well.  This play is very likable due to the great acting, and dazzling scene set up.  The play makes one feel the emotions of the actors through every struggle and every happy moment.

I didn’t like that your article compared Fly to so many other plays.  It’s hard to connect with because I haven’t seen those plays and can’t relate to what they are saying.  I do agree that the play was related to many other plots we see constantly.  You state, “Although the show strives mightily to be different, we've already seen too much of this plot before — the petty internal bickering among the young airmen, the gruff flight instructor.”  This plot may not be unique but the actors make it unique by their characters voice and attitude.  These actors were really good at making people feel the moment, therefore making the audience forget about the redundant plot.

The acting and the scenery were what made the audience enjoy that play.  I do not agree that it was a “Crash and Burn”.  Although, I do agree the plot was boring, the play itself was not the snoozer it was depicted to be.  

alexander.pugh000
alexander.pugh000

I completely agree with the article with the exception of one aspect of the physical portion of the play:  the tap-dancing.  I believe that the tap-dancing could have been excluded from the play and it would have been okay.  It might have been better.  I think that the tap-dancer took away from the emotion, by distracting the audience from the emotion that the actors portrayed.  Other than that, the play, in the physical aspect, was great.  The way that the actors portrayed the Tuskegee Airmen was spot on.  I also agree with the comment that says that it wasn't based on many facts.  It was based on the general idea of the Tuskegee Airmen, but the specifics were based on the writers' imaginations.  I didn't like this aspect.  All in all, I was surprised at the physical part of the play in a positive way, but negatively surprised at the mental portion.

alexander.pugh000
alexander.pugh000

I completely agree with the article with the exception of one aspect of the physical portion of the play:  the tap-dancing.  I believe that the tap-dancing could have been excluded from the play and it would have been okay.  It might have been better.  I think that the tap-dancer took away from the emotion, by distracting the audience from the emotion that the actors portrayed.  Other than that, the play, in the physical aspect, was great.  The way that the actors portrayed the Tuskegee Airmen was spot on.  I also agree with the comment that says that it wasn't based on many facts.  It was based on the general idea of the Tuskegee Airmen, but the specifics were based on the writers' imaginations.  I didn't like this aspect.  All in all, I was surprised at the physical part of the play in a positive way, but negatively surprised at the mental portion.

CarsonF
CarsonF

The play was very enjoyable, but I agree that the plot was fairly weak.  The staging and visual effects and the Tap Griot seemed to disguise the unimpressive plot. It seemed that the Tap Griot just aided in scene transitions, but failed to fulfill the character’s purpose.  He was supposed to be the interesting modern twist that expresses the characters emotions.  But  I felt the character rarely did so. Plus, the other characters did a good enough job expressing their own emotions.  At best he emphasized those, but I was expecting him to reveal the other character’s concealed emotions or adding something to the play that was not already there.  If you wanted to be entertained for 90 minutes it is a great play. But if you wanted to learn some history or some food for thought, this play does not provide that kind of depth.  


cbridgeman
cbridgeman

Dennis Brown gives the play an overall bad review, with some points that talk highly about some aspects of the show. He starts out by leading on that it was a great show, and then slowly drifts off into talking about a different play and how it reminded him of the show. Firstly, I don’t like how the review was talking about a completely different, older play. Secondly, there were many points in the review that I did agree with, such as the lacking of historical content. But I all around think it was a great play.

The fact that Mr. Dennis Brown compared this production constantly to other plays just isn’t fair to me. This production deserves it’s own review. The way that he would put down the play was by saying that it was transparent or that it lacked complexity in the plot, but he did it while giving an example from another production first, and then he would introduce why it was relevant. Although, each and every production is different and shouldn’t be compared to any others. I do however agree that the complexity in the plot just wasn’t there. It was very generic.

He tells us that “there's more substance in the background article printed on the playbill than there is onstage”. There was more so just “filler” plot. I feel like the play didn’t give much information on the characters and didn’t let on much of the experiences other than flying. There was really hardly any real racial conflict, apart from the jerk instructor. In a play of this nature, I expected more hardships that the airmen would have to go through, with their white counterparts.

Overall the play was great, the Tap Griot was a good addition to the play, but it wasn’t a necessity. It just was a good transition for the scenes sometimes and it was entertaining. The stage was great, it looked like the wing of a plane and the background looked like I was looking through a cockpit. The changing background was very enveloping, it looked like you were seeing what they were seeing while they were in the plane. I loved it, and I’d recommend seeing it.

nbwatsek
nbwatsek

I agree with the statement that the play does not offer enough historical fact and relies solely on the knee-jerk reactions from the characters. It is also true that “there’s more substance in the background article printed on the playbill than there is on stage." While I did enjoy the play, there definitely was more personal development than historical context. Yes, white people were offensive to African Americans, and yes, African Americans were oppressed everywhere, but that is common knowledge. We get to know these made up characters, but what about the rest of the Airman? What about the real airman's achievements? These are only four, and we learn more about the made up stories of their lives than their actual skills as fliers and the missions they took on to deserve the respect of their peers. What missions did they take on? How did these missions go well and why were they so successful?

The play on its own was very well put together with the settings, character, and actions all being very interesting and never losing a certain factor of fun. Calling it a “skillfully staged exercise in polish and precision" is definitely accurate. Every action and reaction performed by the characters is executed perfectly and feels completely natural. With, however, the exception of the “Tap Griot,” who does indeed exist solely for “whenever the imagination flags." While the "Tap Griot" was somewhat interesting, he did seem to pick and choose when he came and went. His presence would hardly have been missed had he not appeared at all. This is not a criticism, just a not to be taken. Devices, such as the "Tap Griot," are replaceable and could have just as easily been substituted for a jazz band or solo saxophonist and the story would have remained the same.

The plot is generic, and despite how much I actually enjoyed the show, I, once again, must agree with him on that point. From Full Metal Jacket to Stripes, this plot has been done so many times in almost exactly the same way. The young recruits are hassled by a ruthless instructor, some drop out, some make it, but in the end they graduate and the instructor is still just as grumpy as ever despite the triumphs of the recruits. That is, essentially, the whole plot of the play in one sentence. This, however, wasn’t enough to keep me from having fun. This brings me to my disagreement with this article as a whole. Yes,there were some flaws with the story and it felt a lot like the accomplishments of the Airmen came second to the fake characters, however, the element of fun never left the show as a whole. Plot regurgitation falls to the wayside when fun characters show that  they are involved in the story they take part in.

psneed
psneed

You stated that the play was not bound by the facts. By evening's end, we've actually learned precious little about the Airmen”, however that statement is not true. Although we don’t learn any specific facts about the Tuskegee airmen, we do learn a lot about what life was like for the African American airmen, and the obstacles that they faced.  They were thrown into the air force under the command of white officers who did not believe that “negroes” could be trained to fly, or defend our country.  When several of the African Americans went on to prove themselves, and entered the war it proved great strides for African Americans.  The play does succeed in laughter and in tears because of how powerful the story is.  Not because of a fanciful plot, but because they showed true raw emotions that the airmen in that position would have actually felt.          

The airmen were set up to fail, being sent into the air force under a racist commanding officer that wanted the experimental program to fail.  The tap griot showed the emotions that the airmen were holding inside.  When the airmen were insulted by their commanding officer they had to stand there and take it.  If they acted out they would be sent home thus proving the commanding officer’s suspicion that African Americans are untrainable, and lowly people.  The tap griot served a purpose, without it the emotions of the play would not have easily been perceived.  They did not just throw the tap griot in for no reason, without it the play would not be as powerful.

The actors performed beautifully, they were able to show the hard work, and determination that it takes to a successful African American during World War II.  The plot is not been there done this, this play follows four strong influential African Americans in a time period where blacks are looked down upon.  You were too busy comparing this masterpiece of a play to others that you did not recognize the masterpiece right in front of you face.  You let your opinions of other plays cloud your judgement while you was watching this powerful, inspiring play.  I think that if you watched the play again, clearing your mind of previous plays, you would recognize Fly as the masterpiece that it is.

kaylis2013
kaylis2013

In this article, you argued that the historical information in the play was very minimal.  Even saying, “ there's more substance in the background article printed on the playbill than there is onstage”.   Technically this is true.  The play is not exactly historically informing, however, the play informed us on much more.  It showed the emotions and feelings of the Tuskegee Airmen.  We may not learn dates, but we see and feel what they were going through.  To argue that the play was not educational is incorrect. Although it was only used one time, that one use of the N-word did indeed “elicit a raw emotional response”.  I could feel the tension in the air and the anger of the airmen. Throughout this play the audience is right there with the actors.  You feel the anger, you feel the despair, you feel the sorrow.   History can be boring, however, this play puts you in the shoes of the characters, fueling the spark to want to know more.  The play may not give you actual specific facts, but by allowing you to feel the emotions of the Airmen, it fuels the desire to want to learn more about the courageous men.

Kew2182
Kew2182

On Wednesday, October 30 I went to go see the play Fly at the Repertory Theater with my class. When we got back to school the next day, we looked up reviews of the play. When I was going through the list of reviews I came across a website called Riverfront times. They wrote a review on Fly called “Crash and Burn: Fly’s depiction of Tuskegee Airmen Falls Flat.

This review questioned if people really learned much from this play. They stated that the Tuskegee  airmen deserve our gratitude  and respect,  any attempt to honor the young fliers who confronted prejudice both at home and in Europe is commendable. But by the end we learn very little actual fact about the airmen.There was more information in the playbill then onstage.

I agree that there was a lack of information in the play. I would not have  understood what was going on if we didn't discuss the background of the play in class the day before. The playwrights were not bound by the facts so by end of the play we have learned very little. I believe it would be hard for an audience that had no background of Tuskegee airline to understand the storyline of the play.  But if you went in with a background of the information you would probably be pretty well of.

Though set aside from the lack of facts in the play, overall I feel it was a wonderplay. They kept you involved with the constant light sounds and effects.The screen projections made you feel like you flying in the sky along with the actors. Fly jerked your emotions from happy to said, from laughter to tears. It kept me out of my seat and interested what was going to come next throughout the whole play. I disagree with the idea of the article that Fly was boring and  not an attention getter.

Fly overall was an amazing play.Yes the article is right when it says there is a lack of knowledgeable content about the Tuskegee airmen, and you will walk out learning very little. If you look past that in go in with some background knowledge it is a greatly enjoyable play.

steph2311
steph2311

I do agree with you that the play did leave out a lot of information. I did learn more from the playbook about the characters than I did watching the play live. But I don't think the play as a whole was terrible, or a "crash and burn" and you word it. I think the play was well written and brought a lot to the stage. I loved how they used a tap griot to express the emotions of the Tuskegee Airmen, it was creative and something new I have never seen before. I absolutely loved the way they designed the stage, it wasn't over-elaborate. It was simple, which is something I admired about the play. I also loved how they projected images of what the airmen would be seeing if they were to be actually flying in the sky, and how they covered the stage in fog when the airmen were "flying" to create the feeling for the viewers that they were actually in the sky.  I did not leave the theater hearing people talking about anything else but how amazing the performance of Fly was. It was one of the best plays I have seen in awhile. 

brandi2323
brandi2323

Reading this review of the play Fly, I agreed and disagreed with different aspects of the play. This play was carefully thought out and constructed in my eyes, and may have left the viewer with watery eyes. It was a very touching story, but I do agree it had it’s moments. Moments that the viewer may have not understood, which in my case would be the Tap Griot.  The Tap Griot was a very talented young man, but the play could have done without. I did not really understand his full role there, besides coming onto the stage and showing his dancing skills. I like that the play is striving to be different by doing something extraordinary, but the Tap Griot was simply unnecessary, and may have confused the viewer like it confused myself.

I did learn some things out of this play also. I would not say that my knowledge was not expanded going into this play. Of course the playbill is going to have more information, because it is giving the reader background of the story so it may be less confusing. As far as learning during the play goes, I walked into that play only knowing simply that the Tuskegee Airmen were African-Americans. I learned much more during the play about the actual war, and the enemies. This play mixed knowledge and fun so the viewer did not get bored to death, and I would say they did a great job at it.

I did agree, however, with the point that was made about the cast doing things to get a reaction out of the crowd. The jokes and fun were all enjoyable, but I sometimes felt that they went on and on for to long. It could be a little over the top at times, like when they were throwing the paper in the fire. That scene seemed to go on for 5 minutes, while the more important scenes lasted only 2 to 3 minutes.  It just seemed that the men needed to weigh out their more important and intense scenes and make those longer, rather than the funny ones.

I did enjoy this play greatly. It actually did teach me something about the Tuskegee Airmen, and kept me (as well as the rest of the crowd, judging by the laughs) entertained. The Tap Griot was maybe too much at some points, and I didn't exactly understand his role there, but he was excellent as well as the rest of the cast.  I personally would give this play a good review, because of the way it tied learning history and having a bit of fun together in such a precise manner.

 
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