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Viola Davis recently said, “Critics absolutely serve no purpose.” This may be true to the actor, but maybe not so much for the audience. For my own second foray into theater critique for Broad Street Review, I headed to Wilmington for Delaware Theatre Company’s (DTC) production of Black Angels Over Tuskegee, and this one helped me to understand the job a bit more.
Some say, those who can, do. And those who can’t, critique. A subjective assessment. Whatever you believe, this is no easy job: you want to be fair, you want to be honest to the audience, and you want to provide helpful feedback that challenges and questions and inspires the artists. What I want most in this world is to bring people together. The critic keeps the public informed, best we can, so folks will support arts and culture, and not get jaded or feel intimidated by it. Sometimes I feel like I am getting that right, and other times I feel like I am failing.
So there I was, Green Jeannine, heading to my first DTC show. On the 45-minute drive to Wilmington, I thought how great it is to live in Philly, where you can travel to three states in a matter of minutes, and what it would mean for arts and culture to see PA, NJ, and DE as one scene. We need a tri-state arts and culture counsel to incentivize collaboration and tourism between these neighbors.
I took my teenage daughter (an aspiring actor) with me to the theater, as we’ve done since before she was born. We did our usual chit-chatting over the playbill and the bios, and both of us were intrigued by our first all-male, all-Black male, all-middle-aged Black male cast, in a show directed, choreographed, and starring playwright Layon Gray.
I initially thought the show would be about the now-infamous Tuskegee Experiment, another piece of American history that looms large in the legacy of Tuskegee University. The experiment’s real name was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” and it enrolled 600 Black southern men, a majority of whom had syphilis, in 1932. Even after we learned in 1947 that penicillin cures syphilis, the medicine was withheld from the men in the study, which lasted into the 1970s.
This play doesn’t mention that experiment (if you don’t know about it, you should read up). Black Angels Over Tuskegee is a fictionalized account of six aspiring Tuskegee Airmen, members of the historic real-life cohort who, during WWII, trained at Tuskegee University to become America’s first Black military aviators. We are guided through time and space in the story by a preacher-like narrator named The Man.
The brotherhood that got them through
The Man starts by promising us that this is the story told to him, and then the play begins with the six men on the stage breaking into song and dance. For two hours and 20 minutes, Gray takes us into the psyches of six soldiers who would become like brothers, each with his own motivations for flying in WWII. Some characters’ arcs are more developed than others, but you build a relationship with one soldier’s love for albums, another’s love for his fiancée, and another’s love for a second chance.
My daughter and I learned that the Tuskegee Airmen were beyond brilliant; they worked and died to serve a country that treated them less than and failed them repeatedly. It was brotherhood that got them through the social and emotional toil of both combat and racism. And we both loved the costumes: they felt real, successfully transforming from aviator gear to 1940s suits and hats. It felt like a living museum: aesthetically pleasing and a learning experience in itself.
Take the young people
But Black Angels Over Tuskegee caused conflict for my daughter and me because we couldn’t decide whether it was a lighthearted comedy or if it was meant to be serious. My daughter was smiling, laughing, and playing along, and I was not. I kept shushing her, concerned that she was being disrespectful, and she kept nudging me back, assuming I was being a too-uppity-stiff theater lady who just didn’t get the jokes.
I’ve learned that I am not always going to get it. Perhaps education has petrified my silly bone. There were times where my daughter and other audience members were cracking up, while I was reminded of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy or Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and I was not sure whether it was tongue-in-cheek, coincidental, or postmodern. And perhaps that’s the magic of Black Angels Over Tuskegee: it is many things at once—including a bridge between generations.
Unfortunately, my daughter was the only teenager in the audience. Yes, this is me pulling out my wooden soapbox: how about we take the young people to the theater, even if they see jokes where we see pain? If nothing else, we get to spend time with them and hear their perspectives. The theater was only about half full on the night we attended, and perhaps we’d have a stronger society if the other half were filled with teens. Theater is an invaluable resource to our social dialogue, and if we don’t support this institution, we will lose it.
We give our respect to playwright, choreographer, director, and actor Gray and his team, who put a hell of a lot of themselves into this play. I hope this critique proves purposeful, and Viola Davis is wrong, because as a result of reading it, you take the young people in your life to Black Angels Over Tuskegee and see what happens. Are you too old to get the humor or are they too young to take it seriously? Ase.
What, When, Where
Black Angels Over Tuskegee. Written and directed by Layon Gray. Through October 30, 2022, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
Masks are welcome in the theater, but not required.
Delaware Theatre Company is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office when ordering tickets.
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