Nicodemus, Kansas, 1898. You might envision a windswept prairie town where a few rugged homesteaders struggled against the elements to eke out a living. For the Exodusters — African-Americans who migrated there from the South — the all-black town also offered autonomy: freedom from the South’s racism, an opportunity to own land and a chance to self-govern. In 1992, Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” gave voice to these individuals and pointed out that the westward American migration was multicultural and multiracial.
Now the play has inspired Ballethnic Dance Company co-founder Waverly Lucas to adapt Cleage’s story into a new, full-length narrative ballet that will run March 17-20 at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts. Largely funded by Turner Voices, it enjoys Cleage’s blessing and retains her title, “Flyin’ West.”
Like the play, Lucas’ ballet is rooted in historical facts. Details of personal histories inform the story, which brings up broader issues of race, gender and migration. It’s about a family of three black sisters who’ve left Memphis to homestead a plot of land outside Nicodemus. They take in Miss Leah, an indomitable matriarch who has endured slavery and lost her children and husband but has left it all behind for a new life in the West. There’s Fannie, an aspiring writer, and shotgun-bearing Sophie, who refuses to let anyone harm her sisters, break up the family or take away their land. But Minnie’s abusive husband Frank forces Minnie to turn over her share of the land so he can sell it to white speculators. In the end, it’s Miss Leah’s “killer apple pie” that brings Frank down.
Lucas and Ballethnic co-founder Nena Gilreath invited me to a rehearsal at their East Point headquarters last week. Cleage and her husband, Zaron Burnett Jr., a writer with whom she often collaborates, also visited to see key scenes from the mostly finished new ballet.
Seven or eight dancers practiced various parts, eyes and muscles at the ready. Among them were Gilreath, Haitian dancer Regine Metayer, former Dance Theatre of Harlem members Mark Burns and Savery Morgan, and former DTH principal Paunika Jones, who’s in town from New York to dance the role of Miss Leah. The classically based vocabulary wasn’t groundbreaking, but the entire company of peak-condition actor-athletes engaged passionately in their characters’ emotions as the story unfolded entirely through movement. They glided through yearning arabesques and soared in triumphant lifts in phrases accented with honest, expressive gestures.
Cleage explained that Lucas approached them with his plans for the ballet seven or eight years ago. “I loved their work and trusted them a lot,” she told me. Cleage danced in high school and college — primarily Graham-based modern dance, but also some ballet. Eventually she chose to focus on writing, though dance is still one of her passions. As she watched her play translated into choreography, she reflected, “It’s come full circle.”
Lucas later explained that the play inspired him during its initial 1992 production, directed and produced by Kenny Leon, then artistic director of the Alliance Theatre. Lucas realized that the role of African-Americans in settling the West was a largely unknown piece of history that needed to be told. But, he said, “There has to be integrity when it’s passed on. If not, then you’re creating a society of ignorant, intolerant people. But we develop the tolerance when we understand the cultures, and what they contribute to society as a whole.” To achieve this, the ballet had to be historically true to the pioneers who inspired it, and “in the right spirit.”
On Burnett’s advice, Lucas drove to Nicodemus, where descendants of the town’s early settlers gather in the Nicodemus Historical Society’s annual homecoming celebration. He interviewed a number of them and learned about the details of the settlers’ lives and the “push-pull motivation” that drove them to leave the South and risk their lives for freedom. Lucas brings this historic migration into focus during the ballet’s prologue, set to live African drumming and Keyth Lee’s music performed by the Shaw Temple AME Zion Church choir.
Ballethnic has been given rights to use about 10 music selections by William Grant Still, including his “Afro-American Symphony.” Lucas chose diverse works by Brahms, Bartok, Roberta Flack and Aaron Neville to heighten dramatic impact; pianist Karin Banks will perform new compositions, and there will be several new works by Lee and Full Circle Jazz.
There’s a moment in rehearsal when Jones, as Miss Leah, tells a story as she braids Minnie’s hair. This leads into a flashback: Leah relives her youth, dancing with her husband James (Mark Burns). Balancing in arabesque, she wraps around him with affection. Playfully, they circle each other in a witty conversation of quick, agile steps. He presses her above his head as her body extends broadly, expansively, like a soaring bird.
Afterwards, Cleage told the cast about the moment that inspired the play. While she was driving on the Downtown Connector, an old woman’s voice seemed to come from the back seat of her car. It was Miss Leah, telling the story of how she had lost her children and husband, left her sorrow behind and headed west. Cleage got off the freeway to write it all down. It appears in Act 2, almost exactly as Cleage “heard” it. “Something about this play has to do with the spirits of Nicodemus wanting us to know about it,” she told the dancers. “Now you’ve transformed this story into another art form, but we still see those spirits.”