Walking into the darkened theater for the latest show from Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, the music immediately begins to set the mood. It’s something like the soundtrack to a classic Western piping through the speakers, all triumphant horns and pastoral strings, evoking images of open plains and covered wagons, cowboys and pioneers and all sorts of good folks just looking to set up their own Little House on the Prairie and take a whitewashed bite of that American Dream.
But Flyin’ West soon proves itself to be a far different sort of frontier tale. And while there’s nary a horse in sight, you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Written by Pearl Cleage and directed by Chuck Smith, the drama takes us to the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, in the year 1898, where a community of African-Americans fleeing the barbarism of Reconstruction have laid their claim and begun to build a new life in the unforgiving frontier. Among these homesteaders are our main characters, a multigenerational trio of black women living together as a sort of adopted family, bound by love and history, awaiting the return of their long-away sister and her husband—a man not everyone in the family seems to be thrilled about. And to top it off, the fate of Nicodemus itself hangs in the balance, with wealthy white land speculators descending on the town like locusts.
What follows is a compelling character drama that quietly accomplishes quite a lot, with deceptively little.
The cast is splendid, with the core trio anchoring the production through impressive performances that make the most of a great script. You believe Renata Eastlick, playing the headstrong Sophie Washington, when she tells you that she’ll fight to protect Nicodemus and all that it could be. You feel for Ariel Blue, who both amuses and enrages with a dynamic performance as the torn peacemaker, Fannie Mae. And just as you laugh with Sieglinda Fox, shining in her role as the family matriarch made of quick wit and tough love, you listen extra closely when she commands the stage with stories from a world before Nicodemus.
Even minor characters, such as the kindhearted Wil Parish, played with a deft combination of stoicism, tenderness and comic timing by Michael Knowles, leave their impression on the audience. And credit must begiven to director Smith, for knowing when to let scenes breathe for maximum effect—even when, as the story unfolds, some of those moments are undoubtedly uncomfortable.
That all the entire narrative unfolds on a single set is somewhat astonishing in retrospect, especially considering how wonderfully detailed that set is. This is no blackbox interpretation of a frontier homestead, but a fully furnished imagining, down to the sheaves of dried herbs hanging from the rafters. But through a few implied walls and a rather clever adjustment or two in between scenes, it felt like an entire world existed just beyond the front row.
What exactly we’re supposed to make of that world is up to each individual in the audience, and I won’t spoil anything here. Suffice it to say, Flyin’ West is not always an easy play to watch, but it’s definitely hard to look away.
Currently onstage at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Flyin' West runs through Feb. 12