“History is the river we’re standing in” is the big, weighty statement spoken by one of the characters in the opening scene of “Fly,” on stage at Theatrical Outfit through March 10. Given the subject matter of the play and that declaration, a viewer might reasonably expect an ensuing drama that’s equally broad and heavy, but thankfully the mission of “Fly” is something entirely different. It beautifully and vividly brings to the stage the everyday lives of those who defiantly made big, important, historic change.
“Fly” tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first division of black aviators to be trained as pilots and to fight in combat during World War II. It’s an incredible story of personal integrity and perseverance: the Tuskegee Airmen faced not just all the challenges of being a pilot and fighting the enemy but also the challenges of racism and segregation within the military itself.
On their first day, their white captain tells them that he’s proud of the high attrition rate from his unit. He thinks of the Tuskegee program as a “feel-good” waste of valuable resources that should be spent on more crucial wartime necessities. If the airmen-to-be really want to help the war effort, he tells them, they should just drop out now. And when the airmen get some leave time, they head into Tuskegee, Alabama, and find that, outside of their military environment, where there is at least an ostensible meritocracy, they face just the same racism as do any other African-Americans in the South.
Although “Fly” often sticks too closely to familiar military-story tropes and formulas (there’s the “kid,” the joker, the family man, the tough-as-nails captain), they’re resilient tropes, deployed effectively here, and the strong cast does a nice job of personalizing each. Doc Waller especially shines as WW, the womanizing braggart who constantly rhapsodizes about his hometown of Chicago. The actor employs a great comic physicality in the role: there’s a sense of the charmingly funny show-off, and a deeper character underneath, in nearly his every word and move.
The device of the poetically narrating, tap-dancing griot, or West African storyteller, is an intriguing one, but in the end it seems unnecessary and even distracting. The play has a narrating character looking back on his life in old age, and that set-up is sufficient to get us from place to place and time to time.
The action is also a little slow to start. There’s a long series of slides showing scenes from black and American history and a dance by the griot, then a long train ride to Tuskegee. Once the men set up camp there, however, things pick up. An extended scene in which the aviators do a playful, funky riff on a marching chant is blow-the-roof-off, fantastic physical theater.
The play has to cover a lot of time and territory, and perhaps most challengingly, it has to show pilots in flight. Actors are called on to do a great deal considering that they’re sitting in chairs on a bare stage, but with some sound effects and lighting, and especially the abilities of the cast, the illusion becomes an element of stage magic that’s simply understood as part of the storytelling. When an injured airman finally lands his plane safely after being shot over Berlin, a relieved audience clapped. In the end, “Fly” movingly and effectively brings an incredible, heroic and resonant moment of history to the stage.