Pearl Cleage’s tale of four strong women in an all-black Kansas town in 1898 is a popular choice at regional houses this year — at least five major productions are already slated. The play’s little-known topic may be intriguing and worthy of exploration, but this predictable domestic potboiler has all of the subtlety of a bad Boucicault melodrama. And when one character takes to poisoning another via lethal apple pie, the plot contrivances and manipulations utterly overwhelm the potentially fascinating characters.
This hackneyed narrative is unfortunate because Cleage’s subject has the capacity to bust plenty of stereotypes, especially when played to an audience in Montgomery, Ala. There are few black plays set in the West — and even fewer that have gun-toting frontier women as central characters. And “Flyin’ West” is based on historical fact. In the late 19th century, many blacks left the racist South to settle on the Kansas frontier.
Among the traditional families and other settlers were groups of women operating their own farms and ranches. Cleage, an Atlanta-based scribe, focuses her drama on a group of four disparate women. One is a 73-year-old matriarch who lost 15 sons to slavery and then walked all the way to Kansas to claim her land under the Homestead Act. The other three are sisters — one robust gunslinger, another, a softer soul, and the youngest an insecure girl who has married the wrong man.
All goes well on the ranch until the youngest sister’s aggressive, self-loathing husband tries to sell out the homestead to white settlers, threatening the autonomy of the women. They quickly close ranks and conspire to bump off the nasty malcontent, feeding him a fatal slice of pie just before the final curtain in a bizarre scene that mixes high comedy with death.
The clear message of this outspoken play is that murder constitutes extreme but justifiable action — the honorable women are presented as having no choice but to kill the man who would undermine the solidarity of an all-black township. In the equally gun-infested present, such a violent ending makes for an intensely problematic message.
Cleage crafts appealing and credible characters, all brought eloquently to life by a strong group of performers at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. With the high jinks, there is plenty of humor in the script, and Cleage thoughtfully also includes a helpful male neighbor, as if anticipating the criticism that there are few plays with sympathetic portrayals of black males.
Edward Smith’s production is intelligently staged and well directed, with the hard-working cast achieving a genuine sense of ensemble.
For all the laudable warmth and solidarity, the awful plot of “Flyin’ West” creaks so much that it undermines everything else. Many of the characters make sudden, unmotivated changes, and many of the shocking events revolve around letters, discoveries and the other cliched paraphernalia of the well-made play. None of this narrative nonsense is necessary; Cleage needed only to let her powerful characters tell their own story. Their quiet achievements are far more worthwhile than poisoned apples.