Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe will bring in the New Year with its production of “Flyin’ West” by Pearl Cleage. WBTT had previously presented this show as a staged play reading in the summer of 2018 as part of the national Project1VOICE program, during which Black theatres around the country present the same play on the same day. The full production was originally scheduled for the 2019-2020 season but the pandemic altered those plans.
Chuck Smith, who serves as resident director at WBTT and at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, has returned to Sarasota to direct this show. He previously directed shows including “Knock Me A Kiss,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “The Mountaintop” and “The Amen Corner” at WBTT. In October, the Joseph Jefferson Awards honored Smith with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his lifetime of theater excellence.
“Flyin’ West” takes place in the 1890s, showing how the lives of a small group of Black women change after they leave the oppressive South and settle in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Their hopes, dreams and determination to survive in a harsh region are tested as they build new lives for themselves and their families.
Cleage’s story draws on a seldom-told aspect of American history, reminding us that Black people settled the West, too. The four female characters are homesteaders in Kansas in the 1890s, coming to Nicodemus to accept free public land for cultivation, with the understanding that after five years of continuous residence they would own the land themselves. The original Homestead Act, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, welcomed both women and immigrants who applied for citizenship, and an updated Act in 1866 encouraged Black citizens to take part as well.
In reality, of course, things were not so simple. The women of “Flyin’ West” are confronted by white speculators who want to buy their precious land. They’re also troubled by dissension in their own ranks from one of their husbands. Keeping their dream alive about the land, the town, and the homes they love will not be easy but they are determined and prepared.
“Flyin’ West” premiered in Atlanta in 1992 and has been a staple of the African American theatre canon ever since. The era portrayed in the play is commemorated at the Nicodemus National Historic Site – the only remaining Black settlement west of the Mississippi River.
“Pearl Cleage’s ‘Flyin’ West’ is one of my favorite plays,” said Smith. “As a lifelong fan of Westerns and stories about Blacks in the West, I was aware of and have visited Nicodemus but I knew nothing about the Black female homesteaders until I first read this play.”
The cast of “Flyin’ West” is: Ariel Blue, Renata Eastlick, Sieglinda Fox, Carmi Harris, Michael Knowles and Donovan Whitney. The creative team includes Travis Ray, assistant director; Kevin White, production manager; Victoria Founders, production stage manager; Amber Myers, assistant stage manager; Kenji Trujillo, costume designer; Donna & Mark Buckalter, set designers; Michael Pasquini, lighting designer; Patrick Russini, sound designer; Diego Villada, fight choreographer; Annette Breazeale, properties designer; and Dominique Freeman, wig designer.
“For our 2022-2023 season, we adopted the theme ‘American Dreams,’” said WBTT Founder/Artistic Director Nate Jacobs. “The story of the women portrayed in ‘Flyin’ West’ aligns with our theme perfectly, highlighting their bravery and determination in the face of environmental and societal challenges to their dreams of living free on land they own.”
Performances take place in WBTT’s Donelly Theatre (1012 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota) from January 4-February 12, 2023; WBTT’s talkback with the cast will take place after the matinee on January 22. Tickets are $50/for adults, $20/for students, and active military (cost includes all ticket fees). Call the Box Office at 941-366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
‘Flyin’ West’ cast members (l-r) Ariel Blue, Michael Knowles, Renata Eastlick, Donovan Whitney, Sieglinda Fox and Carmi Harris
Photo by Sorcha Augustine
About Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
The mission of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT) is to produce professional theatre that promotes and celebrates African American history and experience, engages a broad base of patrons and audiences, supports the development of a dynamic group of aspiring artists, and builds self-esteem in youth of color. Visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.