Exploring territory that is seldom traversed in fictional work or popular culture, Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West has as its main characters a group of black women in the late 1800s who have taken advantage of the Homestead Act of 1860 to venture west from Tennessee to make a home for themselves in Nicodemus, Kansas, a small town that was established by African-Americans after the Civil War. International City Theatre is currently staging the show as part of its 29th year, which is focused on “uniquely American stories” as this season’s theme.
Sisters Sophie (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel) and Fannie (Leilani Smith) have made room in their modest home to take in Miss Leah (Robin Braxton), an elderly woman who was among the town’s first residents, while their youngest sibling, Minnie (Aisha D. Benton), has married Frank (Dylan Mooney), a haughty, light-skinned mulatto who often passes for being white. Minnie and Frank are coming to Nicodemus from London for a visit, but Sophie, the oldest and toughest sister, has misgivings about her naïve baby sister’s husband, who, eventually, is revealed as a drinking, abusive spouse. By comparison, a decidedly less dysfunctional romance is budding between Fannie and Wil (Boise Holmes), the family’s jovial, helpful neighbor.
After Frank’s true nature is revealed, the sisters, Miss Leah and Wil all determine that, unless they take the matter into their own hands, Minnie will be left to endure a brutal relationship– or worse.
How they choose to handle the situation crosses over into what I consider an ethical gray area, and it makes for one of those moments in which some audience members are applauding and others are left squirming in their seats– partially from the character’s actions but more so from the audience’s reaction to that stage business. However, it’s this moral relativism that sheds light on the conflict that underlies the narrative throughout all the character’s choices and relationships– that African-American people who have escaped the Jim Crow laws and lynchings of the South to buy land in the Wild West have few places to turn in times of trouble, even when that trouble is from one of their own.
Granted, the family’s problems with Frank are twofold: not only is he beating the youngest sister, he also strong-arms her into signing the deed of her share of the family’s land over to him. This action pushes the sisters’ collective hand, and they’re faced with the possibility of Frank selling their homestead to men visiting the area. Having their land taken from them would mean losing their freedom, their safety and their newfound identity. Manifest destiny, it turns out, wasn’t just for the white man.
With the exception of Holmes’s ebullient performance (which, rather than reading as over-the-top, suits the good-natured Wil), all the characterizations in this production are even-keeled and grounded. Never is there a moment in which some histrionics jolt the audience out of their suspension of disbelief nor a time when dialogue falls flat or an actor’s presence becomes jaded; in the hands of this well cast ensemble, it’s easy for the audience to be absorbed into this “uniquely American” story.
International City Theatre will continue to present Flyin’ West through April 6. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 8pm, and Sunday shows are at 2pm. Thursday-night tickets are $42; all other performances cost $47. Visit ictlongbeach.org or call (562) 436-4610.