I witnessed the everyday lives of Black settlers in 1898 Nicodemus, Kansas, though outstanding acting performances in Bowie State University’s Theater Arts’ Flyin’ West. Director Angelisa Gillyard has crafted one of the DMV’s best-performed plays of the year.
Written by Pearl Cleage in 1992, the play explores the little-known history of Black pioneers who, after the Civil War, moved to the West and took advantage of the Homestead Act, which offered 320 acres of land in western states to those who were willing to cultivate it for five years. Those pioneers fled the racial violence of the Jim Crow South and established all-Black communities.
Three sisters, Sophie, Fannie, and Minnie, their friend Miss Leah, and Fannie’s beau, Wil, faced off against greedy land speculators, and even Minnie’s husband, Frank Charles, in their quest for freedom and the good life. “At the heart of the play is freedom, specifically newly won freedom,” said Producer, Sound Designer, and Bowie State Theater Arts Professor Elena Velasco. “These characters not only had to carve a life in uncharted land, but envision a future for generations to come while still healing and being shaped by their own enslaved past.”
Gillyard, who recently directed the Helen Hayes Recommended Once on This Island for Constellation Theatre Company, got the best out of her players; Cleage’s written monologues were beautifully played by many of the cast members.
I particularly loved Asjah Johnson’s excellent work as Miss Leah, a seasoned and wise lady who told stories about life on the plantation, having babies, and special ingredients for apple pie. Johnson took her time with Cleage’s words. She also did a good job of being in the moment as the other characters spoke.
Brielle Bertrand was fiery and defiant as Sophie Washington. With a rifle and a fighting spirit, Sophie had a vision of transforming Nicodemus, Kansas, into a Black mecca. Bertrand had a good chemistry with her scene mates. I enjoyed Sophie’s account of how “Pap” Singleton, a former slave and organizer of the Exodus of 1879, persuaded roughly 26,000 African Americans to move to Kansas and start new lives as homesteaders. Sophie was one of many who had the gumption to move West.
Minnie Dove, played by freshman Cyan Williams, was a naive, young poet, recently back in the U.S. from Europe, whose claim to the land figured into the plot. Minnie had an intriguing story arc.
Frank Charles, a self-hating mulatto and Minnie’s husband, was played by Xxavier Boone. Frank, having been disowned and cut off financially by his white father, was obsessed with the “top dollar” he could make off his wife’s land. His rants and raves were powerfully frightening; even his moments where he tried to play nice had a subtext of menace.
Amari Chambers brought innocence to the writer of the family, Fannie Dove. Chambers had many touching scenes with Justin Nembhard , who played her suitor Wil Parrish.
The set was simple yet brilliant, consisting of a wide a-frame and not-there suggested walls. Set and Props Designer Kathryn Kawecki made good use of stage space.
Dawn E. Belton’s hair and makeup included Boone’s scary, slicked-back, James Brown/Chuck Berry conk. She also did a wonderful job with various 19th c-entury women’s hairstyles. The upstage screen gave the audience a realistic moon and brilliant sun, thanks to Lighting Designer Lorenzo Miguel.
Bowie State University’s Theater Arts program continues to produce outstanding productions. Its student actors give everything they have to the audience. Lovers of great storytelling brought to life by great directing should take in this show.
Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission
Flyin’ West plays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm on November 19, 2022, at Bowie State University’s Fine & Performing Arts Center, Main Stage Theater, 14000 Jericho Park Road, Bowie, MD. Tickets ($5–$10) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: BSU Theatre and the Department of Fine and Performing Arts require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for all audience members attending. Please note that masks are recommended.
The program for Flyin’ West is online.
Flyin’ West by Pearl Cleage
Sophie Washington: Brielle Bertrand
Miss Leah: Asjah Johnson
Minnie Dove: Cyan Williams
Wil Parrish: Justin Nembhard
Frank Charles: Xxavier Boone
Fannie Dove: Amari Chambers
ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Angelisa Gillyard
Assistant Director: Shannelle Ingram
Costumes: Imari Pyles
Sound Designer: Elena Velasco
Set and Props Designer: Kathryn Kawecki
Assistant Technical Director/Master Carpenter: Carlos Campbell
Lighting Designer: Lorenzo Miguel
Hair and Makeup: Dawn E. Belton
Producer: Elena Velasco