“Sometimes I wish I could just gather my people up in my arms and fly away west….”
Ida B. Wells
The setting of “Flyn’ West,” currently at Westport Country Playhouse (WCP), is a little known town in Kansas called “Nicodemus.” African Americans founded it soon after the Civil War and as the story goes, one of its founders happened to be named “Nicodemus.” However, in a broader sense Nicodemus translated from Greek, means “Victory of the People.” It is also the name of a figure connected with the life of Jesus Christ and the word implies “Born again.” Written in 1994, award-winning novelist, Pearl Cleage’s play encompasses all these meanings and, because it focuses specifically on women’s rights it still packs power with everyone today.
The plot follows the format of a typical melodrama. There’s the male villain whom everyone loves to “Boo!” and the hero that everyone loves to cheer when he saves his helpless lady. The twist here is that it’s a group of ladies who take center stage and heroically save themselves.
“Miss Leah,” (Brenda Pressley) is a former slave and the family’s staunch, Matriarch. Her extended family consists of the nurturing “Fannie” (Brittany Bradford) and shotgun toting Sophie (Nikiya Mathis). A third sister is the more sophisticated “Minnie” (Keona Welch) who returns from London with her conniving, Mulatto husband, “Frank” (Michael Chenevert). The family’s friend, “Wil” (Edward O’Blenis) offers to become the women’s protector when Frank steals the deed and wants to sell the old farm.
The soliloquies, sensitively directed by Seret Scott are more significant than the plot because their eloquently rendered phrases define the individuality of the characters. The clever words naturally reflect the playwright who in turn was influenced by Langston Hughes, Simoine Beauvoir and Richard Wright.
These are strong women of the 1890’s trying to protect the independence they have finally achieved under very harsh conditions. Mathis as Sharp-shooter Sophie comes right to the point when she says, “…two things I am sure of…I don’t want white folks tellin’ me what to do all day, and no man tellin’ me what to do all night.” O’Blenis as soft-spoken Wil, courts Fannie, while he frankly describes how he was ”… more accepted by Mexican folks than whites.” Chenevert who plays the light-skinned villain everyone loves to hate, doesn’t fit-in with either whites or blacks. His exaggerated dying scene (whether on purpose or not) elicited hearty laughs and applause from the opening night audience. Welch’s character Minnie, defines the deep despair of all women who have been wronged by men. Bradford’s nurturing Fanny and Pressley’s elderly Miss Leah, bring forth hidden, feminine warmth and lullabies when a new baby brings hope for the future. The women’s ancient African, ritual chanting and circular dancing, which was originally performed in times of crisis, is interesting and stirring.
Further adding to the production are the women’s authentic costumes, complete with pantaloons for the farm-folk, and bustles for the city gal, designed by Heidi Leigh Hanson. The interior of a farm cabin features a genuine cast iron stove, and an assortment of antique pots and dishes that any New England collector would envy, are by set designer, Marjorie Grandle Kellogg. Notably, the director, costume designer and set designer happen to be all women too!
Plays to: June 16 Tickets: 203-227-4177