Theater Review: “Fly” at Ford’s Theatre

Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s play tells the compelling story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Mark Hairston and Christopher Wilson in Fly. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Mark Hairston and Christopher Wilson in Fly. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

It’s tough to make onstage, artsy scenes of military combat flight seem realistic,
but Ford’s Theatre’s
Fly manages to pull off something more important: making us really care whether those
aircraft pilots make it to the ground safely.

Fly is inspired by the experiences of World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American
military aviators in the United States armed forces (some of the real-life veterans
were in the audience opening night, adding to the emotional impact of the performance).

Trey Ellis’s and
Ricardo Khan’s play is particularly interested in the journey of four pilots: Chicago ladies’
man W.W. (Eric Berryman), cultural crusader Oscar (Mark Hairston), snarky British West Indies native J. Allen (Damian Thompson), and overeager youngster Chet Simpkins (Christopher Wilson). The quartet has to deal with not only racism from their instructors and fellow
fighters, and the demanding skills that combat flight requires; they also have to
get over their own egos enough to see each other as friends and teammates rather than
competition and threats.

Fly does a fine job developing the four characters and their evolving relationships in
a small amount of time (the show runs about 90 minutes), while still fitting in scenes
of training and actual fighting. The four main actors have an easy and realistic rapport;
unfortunately, their foil of a military instructor Captain O’Hurley (James Konicek) feels like a blustering cliché. The show, though, is bookended by a pair of unapologetically
schmaltzy scenes, as a (theoretically) much-aged Simpson looks back with pride at
his time with his unit.
Fly often authentically provokes emotion, but can occasionally feel like it’s being manipulative
when it veers into such territory.

To show the pilots in flight, director
Ricardo Khan* has fashioned large, mirrorlike video screens above the players that blast images
of clouds, faraway homes, or even general chaos as the players twist and turn through
the skies. It’s an interesting visual that, while abstract, allows the audience to
suspend disbelief as the scenes progress. Khan has another storytelling trick
up his sleeve: interpretive tap dancer
Omar Edwards. Whether Edwards is jogging laps, dodging hateful imagery, or charging out of a training
session, his dancing is often charged with doing the emoting for the airmen who are
struggling to keep themselves together.

Given the high-stakes nature of the piece, the knee-jerk assumption is that not all
of the fighters we meet along the way are going to make it out of the war alive, a
thought that lingers each time our protagonists take off into the air. But
Fly drives home a message of the importance of the characters’ sacrifice. As W.W. puts
it, there are worse ways to die than falling out of heaven.

Fly
runs through October 21 at Ford’s Theatre. Running time is about 90 minutes with
no intermission. Tickets ($15 to $62) are available via Ford’s Theatre’s website.

*This post has been updated from a previous version.

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