A refreshing counter to the American myth of individual white heroes “taming” the West, Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” centers on Black women pioneers who migrated West after the Civil War to Nicodemus, Kansas, a town established by African Americans. When the sister of a pair of homesteaders returns for a visit with her mixed-race, light-skinned husband, a power struggle emerges.
The Indiana Repertory Theatre productions runs through Feb. 4.
Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, who anchored last season’s Summit Performance production of “Skeleton Crew,” does the same here with a very different character. A fully alive combination of ache, wisdom, exasperation, stubbornness and humor, she keeps the play from drifting too deep into melodrama.
That being said, “Flyin’ West” is melodramatic. The production doesn’t even attempt to warm us up to the villain, for instance, before he reveals his true colors. There might as well be a light-up sign telling us to boo.
Meanwhile, the three sisters, while different in spirit and character, practically glow with goodness. Even their costumes are spotless.
The plays strength, for me, came via sharp, character-based laugh lines, from tender moments, and through the introduction of a lesser known facet of history.
I’m not convinced, though, that the production found the rhythm to maximize its impact. It opens with some brief live banjo playing and an explainer narrative that seems tacked on, as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to pick up the plot from context clues in the early scenes. Even when not breaking the fourth wall, characters often seem to be focused on the audience rather than each other. Clearly, that’s a directorial choice and while, for some, it may provide connectivity, for me it added a level of artificiality that hurt the piece. The fluidity isn’t helped by the set, whose time-consuming revolve adds disruptive pauses. Nor by music that distracts rather than accentuates.
But crowd-pleasing rather than nuance is a choice and the IRT audience seemed very comfortable with that.
Still, in the play’s final moments, with Lampkin’s performance and Cleage’s words quietly and truthfully connecting past, present and future, there’s theatrical magic.
P.S. This is not the first production of “Flyin’ West” on the IRT stage. It was staged as part of the ‘93/’94 season directed by Kenniy Leon, who has gone on to become one of the hottest directors in the country (represented on Broadway this season by both “The Ohio State Murders” and the outstanding revival of “Topdog/Underdog”).