Published in Pasadena Magazine January 1999
Late 1800s. Down on the cotton plantation. After Miss Leah’s first son was sold into slavery, her next five were claimed by illness and she soon buried their father beside them. Then she just started walking West. “If I had wings,” she said, “I’d a set out flyin’ west.”
Pearl Cleage’s historical/fictional drama, “Flyin’ West,” is ripped from a little-known page of American history. First, there was the Homestead Act of 1860, which offered acres of “free” land (stolen from the dwindling population of Native Americans) to settle the Western states. Then came the so-called ‘Exodus of 1879,’ when forty thousand African Americans (“Exodusters”) wended their way West, establishing all-black communities. One of those was Nicodemus, Kansas, the setting for Cleage’s play. By 1890, 1/4 million unmarried or widowed women were running their own farms and ranches.
Those indomitable women, three (fictitious) sisters and an elder, form the centerpiece of the play, and help the playwright explore themes of racial identity, solidarity, sisterhood, domestic violence, childbirth, health care and perseverance in the face of adversity.
“The concerns black women have had over racism and sexism and classism didn’t just start with the Civil Rights movement of the sixties,” says Cleage from her home in Atlanta. “When I started reading journals and letters for ‘Flyin’ West,’ it surprised me how familiar their concerns were: loneliness, isolation, having babies, what to do about men. These characters are dealing with the same issues in the 1890s that are still important to me as a black woman in the 1990s.”
Cleage is always looking for or creating “unsung sheroes.” The sisters in “Flyin’ West” — tough-as-nails, fiercely protective Sophie; refined peacemaker Fannie; and naive but headstrong young Minnie — agree heartily with their resident matriarch, wise old Miss Leah, the former slave who says “Every colored woman ought to own a piece of land she can call home.”
Connection to the land is also critical in Cleage’s first novel, “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” (Avon, 1997), an Oprah Book Club selection that recently soared onto the New York Times Paperback Bestseller list. Interestingly, in both pieces, the “bad guy” is named Frank. “I don’t have anything special against any Frank,” Cleage avers. But she acknowledges that the light-skinned, mulatto, self-loathing wife-abuser in “Flyin’ West” is roundly hated by audiences. She says they don’t want to wait to see what happens to Frank as events unfold; “they want him dead at the end of act one.”
In some productions, when Frank goes down in act two, the audience jeers and cheers. But the melodrama of that presentation and response doesn’t bother Cleage at all. “That’s part of the tradition I come from,” she says, “where people respond verbally to what’s going on. That’s okay with me; I like melodrama. And it’s very hard to get people involved in theater these days.”
As for Frank, she says, she sees him as “complicated, a victim as much as a perpetrator… Some people come out of their bad beginnings able to survive. He didn’t come out intact. He’s twisted, confused, trapped in all his fantasies.” Lost, angry and disenfranchised, Frank not only tries to ‘pass’ for white, he cozies up to the greedy white land speculators who threaten to destroy the black haven the women are working so hard to preserve. Frank’s antithesis is Wil Parish, a gentle man who loves and respects the land — and one of the sisters.
Unflaggingly concerned with male-female relations as much as any other political hot-potato, Cleage says, “I’m not into male-bashing. I don’t even think there should be such a word. I’m always trying to figure out, ‘How can we make things better?’” She’s done that in her own life, with a new, deliriously happy marriage (to writer Zaron W. “Zeke” Burnett, Jr.). “But,” she hastens to add, “I can’t say we need to stop fussin’ about and at men just because I’ve found the perfect one for myself.”
She admits that she’s “definitely a child of the sixties,” whose politics inform all her work, including her plays, her essays, her regular contributions to Essence magazine and the Atlanta Tribune, and the literary magazine (Catalyst) she co-founded.
Currently, Cleage’s attention is focused on a new novel and a new play, to premiere, like all her others, at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. She considers herself to be extremely lucky.
“I lead a charmed life,” she says appreciatively. “I’ve never written a play that hasn’t been produced.” That’s a humble admission; for two years after its opening in 1992, “Flyin’ West” was the most produced play in the country.
Cleage couldn’t find a more appropriate director for this popular piece than Shirley Jo Finney. “These women,” says the L.A.-based actor/director of the characters in “Flyin’ West,” “are my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. This is just the path my family took. My people migrated from Alabama to Arkansas to Oklahoma and ultimately, in the Grapes-of-Wrath ‘20s, to California, where I was raised. My mother always said to me and my sister, ‘Love the land; a man will leave you, but the land is always there.’
“And there’s the whole cyclical nature of women’s relation to the land,” Finney continues. “And their courage and endurance. And passing down the legacy of spirit. That’s what’s so wonderful about this play. It’s set 100 years ago, but it’s so contemporary, in terms of the issues of independence, freedom, cultural and gender rights. That’s the whole spirit of what this country was founded on. And that’s what makes it universal. The characters are so strongly delineated; they represent an emotional part of each of us.”
The award-winning director of stage and TV (most recently, “Moesha”) has worked in prestigious regional theaters all over the country, but this is Finney’s first time at the Pasadena Playhouse and her first experience with a Pearl Cleage play.
“I love how she writes,” Finney says. “It’s very lyrical. She draws the characters and you draw your own conclusions; she doesn’t pass judgment on any of them. The author has given you the language, the intellect, the reasoning behind the characters. The actor’s job is to play the spaces, and she allows actors room to breathe. When you’re in the audience, you’re bearing witness. What do I, as the director, want the audience to feel? I want the play to resonate. I want them to have a poignant experience.
“Flyin’ West’ is not culturally specific. It’s an American experience that transcends culture. It just happens to be about a particular people. We are a country of pioneers, immigrants. It’s all about freedom and the land.”
Pat Launer is resident theater critic for KPBS radio-San Diego, as well as On Air magazine and Microsoft’s San Diego Sidewalk, online. She is the San Diego correspondent for the national weekly magazine, In Theater.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.