Cleage shines the spotlight on a trio of Negro women living outside the town of Nicodemus, Kansas in 1898. The story focuses on Memphis transplants Sophie, Fannie, and Miss Leah. Sophie (Laverne Lewis) is the strong-willed activist of the bunch, an Ida B. Wells prototype who speaks strongly and carries a big shotgun while at it, making sure that “speculators” will think twice before taking what is rightfully hers. Miss Leah (Carolyn Johnson) is also strong-willed, an octogenarian who still takes pride in doing things for herself while criticizing Sophie on her coffee making. Fannie (Carey Hart) is the optimist of the group; she believes that since they arrived on this land, nothing can darken their doorstep. Her gentleman caller Wil (Chat Atkins) is always dependable - there to lend a helping hand.
The atmosphere changes when Fannie’s sister Minnie and her husband Frank come to visit from New Orleans. Minnie (Lela Elam) left Memphis to travel with her husband to different parts of Europe where she could be culturally educated, while Frank (Ian Lausell), a mulatto as is Sophie, is an ambitious man who thinks he deserves just as much as his half-brothers, because his complexion is just like theirs - white. He has a stake in his slave-owner father’s money and hopes to get his inheritance soon. Much to Sophie’s detest and Fannie’s concern, Frank berates Minnie because the color of her skin is three shades darker than his.
Sophie and Fannie are glad to have Minnie back in their fold, and they have a surprise for her. Sophie is giving Minnie the deed to 1/3 of the land that she and Fannie own in Nicodemus. When Frank realizes that the land is worth more than he thought, he shows Minnie his true colors by forcing her to sign the deed over to him. So, with the help of Fannie, Miss Leah devises a plan to give Frank his well-deserved comeuppance.
Pearl Cleage is a brilliant writer. She balances the scales between humor and drama so efficiently that no actor can go wrong. Her dialogue makes us feel that no matter where we area as an audience, we can share in the occurrence with these characters.
Director John Pryor has chosen the right players for this presentation. Laverne Lewis’ portrayal of Sophie is excellent. She is forceful when she has to be, yet tender and caring for her family. Carey Hart shines as Fannie, the woman who embraces life to the fullest. Carolyn Johnson controls her comedic tendencies as Miss Leah. She measures between cantankerous and “woman of action” nicely. As Frank, Ian Lausell doesn’t show the menace inside the man, so his outcome doesn’t seem justified. Lausell plays Frank so low key that his scenes in which he belittles Minnie are very weak.
Usually assigned saucy roles, this is a 180-degree departure for Lela Elam. But a superb departure nonetheless. As Minnie, she is the strongest performer here. Late of The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women, Elam shows off her diverse range as a young innocent whose only wrongdoing is marrying a man who has no respect for anyone.
Pryor’s direction shows that he knows who he’s working with. The players banter with Cleage’s dialogue so briskly, you won’t have to look at your watch hoping for an intermission to appear on the horizon. E. Marcus Smith’s design of the ladies’ cabin has all the comforts of home, while Apon Nichols’ lighting design has the right colors to resemble day and night.
Flyin' West tells the story of free Negro women trying to live out their existence on their own terms. M Ensemble’s cast continues a tradition of exposing the Black experience to wider audiences. Thanks to the clever writing of Pearl Cleage and the fantastic trio of Lewis, Hart, and Elam, this is an experience that should be shared with everyone.
Flyin' West plays until May 9th in M Ensemble’s Actors Studio at 12320 W. Dixie Highway, North Miami. For reservations, please call (305) 895-8955. You can also find them on the web at www.themensemble.com.
M ENSEMBLE COMPANY- Flyin’ West
Cast: Laverne Lewis, Carolyn Johnson, Carey Hart,
Set Design: E. Marcus Smith
Stage Manager: Herman Carabali, II
Directed by John Pryor
Photo: Deborah Gray Mitchell
-- Kevin Johnson