Joslyn Jones has two monologues in “Flyin’ West.” One is about everything her character Miss Leah — a tough-as-leather frontierswoman who has literally carved out a place for herself in the American west — lost to slavery. The second is about a particularly cherished apple pie recipe. The first is heartbreaking, the second galvanizing. Together, they reflect the mighty forces at work in Pearl Cleage’s remarkable play.
Directed by Chuck Smith for American Blues Theater, “Flyin’ West” is an enthralling, propulsive western. Shed any preconceived notions you might harbor about the genre: Cleage is as far away from Clint Eastwood and Louis L’Amour as the play’s Nicodemus, Kansas, setting is from the moon. Nicodemus, as you probably weren’t taught in school, was founded in 1877 and became one of the few western settlements populated almost exclusively by people of color following passage of The Homestead Act. In Cleage’s 1898-set drama, Miss Leah (Jones) is one of three black women holding down a claim in the Kansas outpost. She’s working shoulder-to-shoulder with sisters Sophie (Tiffany Oglesby) and Fannie (Sydney Charles). All three are determined to create a world for themselves on land that is “fine and free” and — crucially — their own.
‘Flyin’ West’ ★★★★ When: Through Nov. 3 Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Tickets: $19-$39 Info: Americanbluestheater.com Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Cleage’s plot kicks into high gear with the arrival of Fannie and Sophie’s younger sister Minnie (Tiffany Renee Johnson). While her sisters have been wresting a hard-won living from the Kansas soil, Minnie has been living in London with her husband Frank (Wardell Julius Clark), the half-black son of a slave owner. Light enough to pass as white and mired in self-loathing when he can’t, Frank is the most dangerous kind of man: Insecure, entitled and easily moved to rage. When the latter takes hold, Frank takes it out on Minnie. Sometimes, he beats her. Sometimes, he tells white folks she’s a whore he won in a card game.
The conflict between Frank and the women on stage fuels the conflict in “Flyin’ West.” It starts at a slow simmer and ramps up to scorching as the play winds on. By the time that pie shows up, Cleage is skirting a razor’s edge. Smith’s direction keeps its balance, straight through a death scene that could easily turn “Flyin’ West” into choking melodrama. Murder, money, lust and land ownership — such are the raw ingredients of a soap opera. “Flyin’ West” has the components of “Dynasty,” the epic sweep of Willa Cather and an artistry that belongs to Cleage alone.
The cast is airtight. Still, it’s Jones who captures lightning in a bottle as Miss Leah. Taciturn and ornery on the outside, Miss Leah briefly drops her armor when she remembers her life on the plantation, and the horrors she endured. Her life has made her a woman of pragmatism and action. She’s learned how to fix things that the law won’t address. She’s learned to do so without getting caught.
Oglesby’s Sophie is a study in magnificence. Here is a woman who can skin a rabbit and a horse thief with equal, perfunctory ease. She’s someone who doesn’t shrink from taking up space. Sophie doesn’t walk, she strides. She handles a rifle with the ease of an appendage. She’s contrasted by Charles’ Fannie, the family peacemaker.
As the action unfurls in the sister’s tiny homestead cabin (believably rendered by set designer Grant Sabin), the stage turns into a pressure-cooker. Which brings us to Frank. He is the opposite of Henri Watkins’ Wil, a neighbor whose shy courtship of Fannie is a source of warmth and humor. Unlike Wil, Frank’s very presence will make you uneasy. He’s got a sweet smile, an oily tongue and a vise grip: Watch how he grasps Minnie’s wrist after she replaces her elaborate hairstyle with pigtails. It’s menacing, inescapable and a harbinger.
The seemingly irreconcilable contrast between Frank and the sisters plays out with brilliant clarity in a scene where he is completely silent. While the women clasp hands and ritualistically praise the power of family, land ownership and independence, Frank is meticulously wrapping his slick, straight hair with a protective wrap.
“Flyin’ West” is enhanced by Rick Sims’ sound design and original moment. At lights up, we hear the sound of wind billowing over an open prairie, a sound that evokes vast, untamed spaces. In the final scene, Sims creates a barely audible mixture of two worlds: There’s a gospel choir, just on the threshold of what you can hear. There is also something ancient, percussive and dominated by drums. It’s a sonic homage to the ancestors of Nicodemus and the future hopes of the town’s residents.
The production comes together visually in Lily Grace Walls’ period costume design, which highlights the dun-colored practicality of the settlers’ skirts against the elaborate, songbird-colored head wraps they don as they go about their daily chores.
In most tellings, the West is won by men who embody the myth of the American cowboy. Cleage’s story turns elsewhere. At American Blues Theater, the results are worth exploring.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.