With ‘Flyin’ West,’ Everyman Theatre delivers on its commitment to EDI

Pearl Cleage’s groundbreaking play features pioneering Black women overcoming daunting odds.

With the production of Pearl Cleage’s groundbreaking play Flyin’ West, Everyman Theatre delivers on its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion at every level of its organization. First through the creative direction of recently appointed Associate Artistic Director and Resident Company Member Paige Hernandez, and second in its investment in the seasoned ensemble of Actors’ Equity Association member actors who make a challenging historical piece like Flyin’ West come to life.

Bianca Lipford as Minnie Dove Charles and Eleasha Gamble as Sophie Washington in ‘Flyin’ West.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

This intergenerational play featuring four pioneering women overcoming daunting odds is also a reflection of the artistic director’s vision and personal growth experience, which included a nurturing mentorship by Pearl Cleage and Black Women Power, a relationship that led to the opportunity to work under Cleage’s direction at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

“I love the timeliness of Flyin’ West and its connection to issues related to gentrification and the importance of land to Black people,” says Hernandez.

The ensemble cast for Flyin’ West features veteran Everyman Resident Company member Jefferson A. Russell as the standup reliable neighbor Wil Parish, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as the former slave Miss Leah, Eleasha Gamble as the gun-toting prairie woman Sophie Washington, and Calvin McCullough as the devious and abusive brother-in-law Frank Charles, who only sees personal profit in his wife’s share of the Nicodemus land deed.

Making their Everyman Theatre debuts are newcomers Bianca Lipford as the fragile abused wife Minnie Dove Charles, and Briana Gibson Reeves as the peacekeeping sister Fannie Dove, who make up the “three Negro women” Sophie, Fannie, and Minnie, who carried their childhood songs of love and kinship to the western prairie.

Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Miss Leah, Calvin McCullough as Frank Charles, Bianca Lipford as Minnie Dove Charles, Eleasha Gamble as Sophie Washington, and Briana Gibson Reeves as Fannie Dove  in ‘Flyin’ West.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

But Aakhu TuahNera Freeman’s performance as the aging matriarch Miss Leah is the glue that holds the younger sisters together and gives them the strength through her world-weary woman wisdom to overcome the domestic abuse and ruthless frontier sense of male dominance that threatens their dreams of making Nicodemus, Kansas, an early post-Reconstruction vision of Black Wall Street in Tulsa generations later.

Miss Leah is a Griot who passes along the haunting stories of the lost souls of family during slavery that Fannie Dove commits to paper to preserve Miss Leah’s stories, which include a mystical secret recipe that Miss Leah uses to cast a sorcerous spell that ultimately saves the sisters from the loss of their landed heritage.

As a history lesson, Flyin’ West achieves Cleage’s goal of informing modern audiences of the 1862 Homestead Act, which made public lands available to be owned by all races and genders to support themselves or to develop to sell for a profit.

Calvin McCullough as Frank Charles, Bianca Lipford as Minnie Dove Charles, Briana Gibson Reeves as Fannie Dove, and Eleasha Gamble as Sophie Washington in ‘Flyin’ West.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Kudos also to founding Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi for paying homage to the Indigenous Piscataway and Lumbee Native American tribes, whose land Everyman Theatre stands on, and the African American slave labor that built the city of Baltimore.

“Pearl Cleage is the Poet Laureate of Atlanta,” said Lancisi, “and we picked this play as the most-produced regional play to open a window to the past.” Flyin’ West delivers on Everyman Theatre’s motto of “Stories Well Told.”

In addition to Hernandez, the creative team includes set design by Andrew Cohen; lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II, who delivered a haunting “Good Luck Moon” effect as the play closed; sound designer Veronica J. Lancaster, who incorporated a very effective chorus clap that added a spiritual accent to the transitions from act to act; and David Burdick’s spot-on period costume designs, which complemented the authentic and rustic set design.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.

Flyin’ West plays through October 31, 2021, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. The show may also be viewed online anytime from October 22 through November 14, 2001, but tickets for digital streaming access must be purchased by Sunday, October 31, at midnight. Tickets (in-person, $29–$59; streaming, $19.99) may be purchased online or by calling 410-752-2208. Box office hours are Monday to Friday from 9 am until 6 pm, and Saturdays from 10 am until 5 pm.

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MISS LEAH: Aakhu TuahNera Freeman
FRANK CHARLES: Calvin McCullough
FANNIE DOVE: Briana Gibson Reeves
WIL PARSON: Jefferson A. Russell

SET DESIGN: Andrew Cohen
SOUND DESIGN: Veronica J. Lancaster
WIG DESIGN: Linda Cavell

SEE ALSO: Everyman Theatre’s all-live 2021/22 season kicks off in August


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