It’s been nearly 65 years since the end of World War II, and language scholars have yet to devise a satisfactory replacement for the once-truism, “What goes up must come down.” Those words may ring true with respect to gravity, but it implodes when the subject is the Tuskegee Airmen, who took flight as the first African-American troop of pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, and are still soaring on the gulf streams of history.
Those men, who overcame the prevailing prejudices of the first half of the 20th century to become a respected and valuable arm of the Allies, are as American a success story as you can name, and as inspiring a military drama as could be found. But Layon Gray’s well-meaning play about them at St. Luke’s Theatre, Black Angels Over Tuskegee, is - at best - moving in spite of itself.
When it flies, which it does only in the last 20 minutes or so of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, it does so only because it links the Airmen more directly to the traditions and the ideals for which they were fighting. But until the point the group finally takes to the skies, Gray (who also directs) tells a largely formulaic story with predominantly stock characters that seldom suggest unique souls worth honoring in this fashion.
Theodore Franks (David Wendell Boykins) is the old-fashioned good-old-boy who so loves music he can’t resist sneaking in 78s he has no way of playing. Abraham and Quentin Dorsey (respectively played by Thom Scot II and Gray himself) are brothers, the former the sensitive type with a love for astringent moonshine and the latter a henpecked boyfriend with one kid out, another on the way, and a penchant for seizures that somehow passed the Army medical exams. Elijah Sams (Lamman Rucker) is a former pro boxer going legit. Percival Nash (Demetrius Gross) adores gambling away his life savings. Jerimah Jones (Derek Shaun) is the quiet, studious, and easily annoyed type who has reasons for believing he’ll be better off if he never trusts anyone.
Beyond a few token details, and the energetic attempts of the actors (particularly Shaun, who digs as deep as he can to make Jerimah more than a one-note discontent, and almost succeeds), you never really get to know these people. They exist mainly to voice generic opinions about a variety of subjects of concomitant importance, from Jim Crow laws to whether blacks can better advance by keeping their heads down or up (the name of Stepin Fetchit is dutifully invoked) to whether Sarah Vaughn or Lena Horne is the better singer.
The first act is flooded almost nonstop with these kinds arguments (with a couple of musical numbers thrown in for some vague variety) as the men wait to take the test to move on to their real training in Alabama; the second act, set there in Tuskegee as the guys prepare for deployment, is not organized much differently. The overall effect is of a lightly dramatized lecture on Roosevelt-era race relations, an impression not dispelled by the presence of a mysterious modern narrator (Antonio D. Charity) that is so involved with the story he apparently believes he was there.
Gray seems so concerned with being informational, about the mores of the era and the natures of those who lived through it, that he neglects a stronger focus on the work that defined and distinguished the Airmen. Once he shifts his focus there, and on the ripple effects of their accomplishments, the play becomes exactly the absorbing and affecting portrait of them that it should be, fixing them on the line of world-changing achievers that also includes people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama. But for too much of the play they’re character breakdowns given blocking rather than representatives of a long-neglected part of America about to come into its own.
This could be Gray’s point: that our one-dimensional views of the men who would become legends are too informed by our own prejudices and perspectives to allow us to truly comprehend the scope of their actions. But in a lengthy program note, Gray describes his process of writing the play using the surviving Airmen’s real recollections rather than relying on books and other second-hand accounts. That suggests he was determined to get his story - and their story - right. And maybe he did. But Black Angels Over Tuskegee is too constructed to be true, and that suggests that fewer facts - and more imagination - might have helped this lopsided evening fly as high, fast, and well as did the heroes it chronicles.
Black Angels Over Tuskegee