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If the current Broadway season is any indication, the visibility of Black theater makers is expanding rapidly. New plays are upending a long tradition of white supremacy in the dramatic arts, and historically overlooked theatrical gems by non-white writers are starting to get their due. Quintessence Theatre Group, with its fantastic 2020 mounting of Angelina Weld Grimke’s 1917 Rachel, and its remarkable Flyin’ West, now on stage at the Sedgwick Theater, makes a compelling case for this reconsideration.
Pearl Cleage’s play, which premiered in 1992, follows the fascinating and often-ignored history of Nicodemus, Kansas. A predominantly Black community founded in 1877 by formerly enslaved people, it’s the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi River that endures today. It was formed during Reconstruction as Black people fleeing southern states took part in the national project of westward expansion. The town’s history complicates our (or at least my) conception of the Great Plains of the 19th century. The folks who lived and settled in Nicodemus survived harsh winters and a foreboding landscape in pursuit of a free and self-regulated utopia. This story is deeply relevant to ongoing conversations of redlining, gentrification, and reparations.
Set in 1898, the play centers on Sophia Washington (Deanna S. Wright), an independent and passionate homesteader who lives with her adopted sister Fanny (Maya Smoot) and maternal figure Miss Leah (Zuhairah “Z” McGill, who also directs). They are a well-balanced triumvirate. Sophia is strong-willed and strident, Fanny is milder and empathetic, and Miss Leah is full of hard-won wisdom. Their balance is upended when youngest sister Minnie (Billie Wyatt) returns home from her extended honeymoon in London with her multi-racial, self-loathing husband, Frank (Dax Richardson). There is love in this house, but also deep tension and philosophical divides.
Cleage’s writing is full of warmth, humor, oral tradition, and fire. The central characters navigate life on the prairie, the lasting shadow of enslavement, and the violent dangers of misogyny. Somehow the play handles the weight of these narratives with a deft enough hand to be delightfully surprising and darkly funny. I can’t think of a play I have seen or read recently that has left me so in awe of its craft.
Standout ensemble and design
Across the board the ensemble is fantastic. McGill has accomplished a remarkable feat, directing herself and her castmates with emotional honesty and intensity. The relationships feel lived-in and complicated. For her part, McGill’s Leah is perfectly world-weary. She tells stories of her time enslaved, describing acts of horrendous cruelty, but reminds her descendants and the audience of the agency and joyful resilience she created. As Sophia, Wright quietly smolders with intensity. Richardson’s Frank is both loathsome and heartbreaking. Smoot and Wyatt are pitch-perfect as the gentler, but loyal sisters.
The evocative set and lights by Brian Sidney Bembridge convey the beauty and the cramped interior quarters of homestead life. Jarious L. Parker’s sound design includes musical cues and motifs from the 20th century to create an arresting and thrilling backdrop to the action. A few awkward scenes presented along the sides of the stage may be an inevitable effect of the show’s in-the-round staging.
Flyin’ West is presented as part of Quintessence’s Reclamation Repertory with Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils. I am thrilled to see this team’s take on that work.
What, When, Where
Flyin’ West. By Pearl Cleage, directed by Zuhairah “Z” McGill. Through June 25, 2022, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and ID or a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours are required to attend, and guests must remain masked throughout the show.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Contact the box office at (215) 987-4450 or [email protected] to arrange for wheelchair-friendly seating and for info about open-captioned performances.
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