The shorthand description of “Fly,” currently playing at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, is that it is about the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots who flew in World War II. But rest assured, this is not a dry historical drama. “Fly” is as much of an emotional journey as any play I’ve seen in a long time, as well as a play that sometimes uses music and dance to add humanity to its heroic soldiers.
The plays follows a group of pilots from their arduous training in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1943, to their overseas missions, and beyond. It’s bookended by scenes of central character Chet (Desmond Newson), more than six decades later, at President Obama’s first inauguration, which he attends as an honored guest.
Chet is from Harlem, and the youngest, most innocent one in the group. W.W. (Brooks Brantly) is a ladies man from Chicago. Oscar (Terrell Wheeler) is a “race man” – meaning someone devoted to the advancement of the African-American people — from Iowa, who is expecting his first child. J. Allen (Damian Thompson) is a bit of an outsider, as he’s from the British West Indies.
The four fight, and bond. There are also three white soldiers in the cast, including Capt. O’Hurley (Anthony J. Goes), who hurls racial insults at the cadets and thinks the idea of training African-Americans as pilots is nothing more than a public-relations experiment.
In a move that helps add unexpected resonance to many scenes, the cast is rounded out by a “tap griot” (Omar Edwards), whose dancing echoes the action. It’s a gritty story, in many ways, But the presence of this non-speaking, larger-than-life character, who stands apart from the action — his dreadlocks make him immediately, dramatically different from the short-haired soldiers — yet is connected to it, adds an element that’s almost mythological.
Co-writers Ricardo Khan (a co-founder of Crossroads) and Trey Ellis don’t shy away from the horrors of war; though it’s ultimately an upbeat play, not all the pilots escape the action unscathed. Chet — who we know will be a survivor, because he’s at the Obama inauguration — is the most relatable character in the bunch, a bit timid but determined, and quietly competent. But he’s also the one who reminds us, at both the start and the end of the play, that the characters were more than just soldiers trying to do their job and make it home alive, but were “knee deep in the river of history.”
Khan, who directs, and choreographer Hope Clarke do a good job at making the whole play like a dance. The soldiers are constantly sparring with each other, and jockeying for position, trying to figure out their place in the group, and in the world. The battle scenes are genuinely tense and harrowing, and a scene in which Chet and W.W. freak out two white pilots by pretending to do some voodoo is hilarious.
“Fly” is full of surprises, and they’re almost all good ones.
Lincoln Center in New York commissioned “Fly,” and presented a short version of it in 2005. The full-length “Fly” was first presented at Crossroads in 2009, and the current production is the last in a tour that has also included shows in Pasadena, Calif., and New York City.
“Fly” is at the Crossroads Theatre through April 17; visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.