Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Government Inspector
The story begins and ends in 2009, as elderly Chet Simpkins (Christopher Wilson) sits on the steps of the U.S. Capitol watching Barack Obama's inauguration as president. But Beowulf Boritt's scenic design and Clint Allen's projections set up the context with scenes from throughout the 20th centurylynchings, burning crosses, and civil rights marcheswhile the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards) furiously hammers out an accompaniment.
Chet reflects on how he and the men with whom he served didn't do it for the sake of history. As if from his memories, the images of his friends appear in sepia light before coming to life. Chet, the youngest, just wanted the opportunity to fly; swaggering W.W. (Eric Berryman) hoped to impress a woman; J. Allen (Damian Thompson), from the British West Indies, looked forward to a new challenge; and Oscar (Mark Hairston), a serious "race man" from Iowa, did want to attack prejudice head-on. Their ritualized interactions sometimes slip from military discipline into precise yet energetic choreography by Hope Clarke.
In 90 minutes that speed by, Khan and co-author Trey Ellis bring the men together in Tuskegee, Alabama; follow them through the grueling training process, made worse by the bigoted attitudes of their white commanding officers; then launch them into the skies over Italy and Germany. Allen's projections on Boritt's scattered screens take viewers along for the ride, supported by Rui Rita's lighting design and John Gromada's original music and sound design: as the airmen learn different maneuvers and provide support for bombing crews, the audience sees the sameoften dizzyingthings the pilots do.
While all four leads give exemplary performances, it's Edwards who provides the (symbolic and literal) heartbeat for the production. A griot is a traditional African storyteller and oral historian, but Edwards' feet do the talking here, their percussive tap beats powering the action.