(clockwise from center) Avery Sommers, Joshua Elijah Reese, Kevin Brown, Taïfa Harris, DeWanda Wise
It's always refreshing to be reminded of the power of storytelling. In Charlayne Woodard's Flight, an extended family of slaves in 1858 Savannah present that power in two layers of story. There is the outer story of a scared boy being coaxed from the high branches of a large tree, his refuge after his mother has been sold away from the family. The inner layer of Flight consists of stories told and acted out for the boy, fable-like stories which seek to affirm some kind of security and hope for those who have little control over any aspect of their lives. The stories are about family, friendship, man-woman relationships; they are simple yet profound.

Li'l Jim is the boy in the tree (figuratively speaking, as a large tree is part of Tony Ferrieri's set, but the boy remains unseen), and he is frightened. His mother, Sadie, was taken from him suddenly, for the "crime" of teaching other slaves to read, and sold to a new owner. Sadie's husband Nate (Joshua Elijah Reese) fights many emotions, including rage and sorrow. Sadie and Nate's relationship is one story. The elderly Oh Beah (Avery Sommers) is the wise matriarch trying to hold the family together. She is the master storyteller. Ezra (Kevin Brown) and Alma (Taïfa Harris) each hold a secret guilt for playing a part in Sadie's fate. Along with Mercy (DeWanda Wise), they all participate in lively and poignant storytelling for the bulk of the approximately hour and a half show.

The stories offer amply opportunity for the play's characters to act out many different roles, including animals. Separating the stories is some simple group choreography and sing-chanting to the beat of George Jones' drumming. The stories are varied, some more symbolic than others. One tells of how day and night came to be; another is about freedom, told through a tale of two young friends and a bear. There is a story of god, the devil and the physical strength of men and women. The two most fascinating stories are sad yet inspiring. In one, two slave sisters are separated and their very different roads through life ultimately re-merge. The story that must have inspired the play's title depicts the worst of slavery and the need for inner faith.

Director Liesl Tommy and cast do an excellent job of bringing these stories to life. Avery Sommers is perfectly cast as Oh Beah, adding a few years to her age through body language and voice. DeWanda Wise is particularly good at acting out various characters, especially the animals. She uses every muscle in every limb of her petite figure to almost magically create vivid transformations. Each actor is absorbed into the various characters they play, and we can feel a bond each has to the heart of Woodard's play.

Flight plays at City Theatre through April 6. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/.

Photo: John Schisler

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