Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Homestead Acts, which provided 160 acres of federal land to anyone who agreed to farm and improve the land. Set in 1898, Flyin' West is about a group of women who were born slaves or whose parents were born slaves who travel west to the town Nicodemus, Kansas, and claim a parcel of land for themselves on the harsh frontier.
Sisters Sophie (DeAnna S. Wright) and Fannie (Maya Smoot) already hold the deed to their little slice of Nicodemus. Sophie has high hopes for the future of their community, which she imagines as a mecca for African-Americans seeking their own place away from Reconstruction and Jim Crow. However, Sophie is well aware of everything that threatens her vision, from the impending harsh winter to the greed of encroaching white prospectors. Fannie supports her sister, but mostly has eyes for a particularly thoughtful neighbor named Wil Parish (Phillip Brown). The sisters are currently sharing their homestead with Miss Leah (Zuhairah McGill, who also directs) and anxiously awaiting a visit from their youngest sister Minnie (Billie Wyatt) and her rather less eagerly anticipated husband Frank (Dax Richardson). Together these women must face down the external and internal forces that would threaten their power and freedom as landowners.
Wright brings a reserved intensity to the role of fiercely independent Sophie. Dauntless, inspiring and sympathetic Wright's energy electrifies the entire production. Smoot plays Fannie with just the right balance of sweetness and stalwart practicality. Smoot and Brown have a lovely chemistry and it is a pleasure to watch their interactions. Brown gives Wil an honest charm that makes him easy to root for while Richardson is absolutely despicable as Minnie's husband and all-around scoundrel Frank. I do not want to give anything away, but Billie Wyatt's turn as little sister Minnie is so convincing it can be hard to watch. Both the funniest and the darkest moments of Flyin' West belong to McGill, who weaves Miss Leah's humor, pain and joy into a stunning tapestry of of wisdom and experience. The superb ensemble make those dark moments breathtakingly bleak, but they also bring ample humor and authenticity to the interactions of this unusual family.
Brian Sidney Bembridge has designed the set for Flyin' West in the round, with the audience sitting on all four sides of the square stage. It can be a difficult arrangement to pull off effectively, but Bembridge manages to create the sense of a complete house with surrounding outdoor spaces while keeping the lines of sight open and giving the actors ample room to express themselves. The skillful set design lets the audience feel like they are truly peering into the heart of a family home and simultaneously reminds us of the precious open land that is so central to the power and identity of these women who inhabit it.
Dynamic lighting design by Bembridge adds to the solidity of his set and creates a shifting sense of time and focus, but it also adds an almost abstract dramatic tension at key moments in the play. Flashes of red and blue signal pain and anger as clearly as any screams ever could. Ali Turns' precisely executed costumes feel wonderfully authentic to the period. More importantly, every dress, suit, hat and apron reflect each character's individual personality.
Although the characters and the story of Flyin' West are fictional, the town of Nicodemus and the Black women and men who first settled it were quite real. Today Nicodemus, Kansas, is the only remaining western town established by African-Americans during the Reconstruction period. How do so many of us not know about the African-American settlements of the old West? Why don't we hear more about the African-American women pioneers who left the post-Civil War American South for a new and unknown world of possibility? Flying West hints at the answers to those questions, but it also invites us to learn more about our past and embrace the possibility of a better future where everyone gets more of what they really deserve. Do not miss your chance to see it.
Flyin' West runs through June 26, 2022, at the Quintessence Theatre Group's Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit www.QTGrep.org or call 215-987-4450.