Charlayne Woodard, author of the award-winning plays “Pretty Fire,” “Neat” and “In Real Life,” has assumed the role of modern-day “griot” (an African-American storyteller who passes tales from generation to generation) in her unusual and historically significant world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Woodard felt the need to pursue this project when she discovered that the teenagers she taught knew nothing of their ancestry and the bloodstained details of the slave experience. Her efforts, persuasively directed by Robert Egan, have resulted in a candid, pulsating production that will only improve with tightening, trimming and reorganization of this material to do it full dramatic justice.
Set in 1858 Savannah, Ga., the central situation involves 5-year-old Jim (an unseen character), who has lost his mother, Sadie, after her owner abruptly sells her for reading and teaching a child. Nate (Frank Faucette), Sadie’s husband, is agonized with grief and thirsting for revenge, but wise, matriarchal Oh Beah (Myra Lucretia Taylor) warns him that violence will endanger his friends and loved ones.
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As young Jim hides in a tree, Nate and Oh Beah try to coax him down, along with Mercy (Chastity Dotson), Alma (Julanne Chidi Hill) and Ezra (Meshach Taylor). Their method, to sustain themselves and alleviate Jim’s despair, is to tell stories, and with the aid of an outstanding drummer/percussionist, the tales flow.
Myung Hee Cho’s realistic yet magical set, with tree trunks, ferns and overhanging gray-green moss, transports us to an earlier time, and Geoff Korf’s lighting — evolving from light to dark blue, to haunting red and purple, creates a mood that mixes pain with hope and dashes of fantasy.
The cast displays such aptitude for singing and dancing that one can’t help wishing there were more of both, especially in view of Otis Sallid’s imaginative choreography. Sallid’s movements alternate between humor and desperate emotion, and always propel the stories forward.
Every anecdote has individuality and personality, but some are more gripping than others. One, pitting a boy named Achilles against a treacherous bear while his friend Thomas flees and fails to help him, underscores the consequences of disloyalty and supplies foreshadowing for a later revelation.
Even more moving is the story of two sisters (Dotson and Hill), stolen from their parents and separated for many years. Hill marries and has a happy life; Dotson is tossed from one heartless owner to another. When Dotson becomes Hill’s servant, neither recognizes the other and Dotson beats her repeatedly. It’s a truly soul-stirring moment when the sisters learn who they are and Dotson apologizes for her cruelty.
Woodard’s script reaches a punchline too early, when we realize why Sadie was sold and discover the identity of the person who stood by and made no move to save her. We can’t help wondering whether the culprit is forgiven too quickly, and the events feel so conclusive that “Flight” begins to feel overlong after this situation is resolved.
The story that comes afterward — Sadie’s favorite — is lighthearted and childlike; it features Hill as Oo-na-na-na, a mother whose children have been swallowed by an elephant. Hill is at her best here, and when she also is swallowed whole and finds the children, she encourages them and a host of imprisoned creatures to dance up a storm and make the elephant sick, then cuts everyone loose with her knife. This excellently directed segment would achieve even firmer impact if it didn’t follow the shocking events of the previous scene. Rethinking its placement would allow the tale to attain its maximum potential.
As the angry Nate, Faucette gives a towering portrayal, making us understand and sympathize with his murderous impulses. Myra Lucretia Taylor’s Oh Beah splendidly represents the voice of reason, assuring friends that their exploitative masters will be punished someday for their callousness. Oh Beah is no sanctimonious cliche; she projects the kind of inspiring strength that stands against evil and ultimately triumphs.
Dotson is an arresting blend of vulnerability and steel will, and Hill shows remarkable range as both victim and fighter. Meshach Taylor completes the superior ensemble, assuming various parts — from newborn to senior citizen — with warmth and skill.
The show — targeted to kids 10 and up, as well as adults — is sometimes too mature for its youthful demographic. But there’s no denying its soaring power when luckless Sadie is quoted, “I belong to me!” and Oh Beah says, “There was a time when our people in Mother Africa could fly, and they did … They flew free as eagles … Anybody can fly if their spirit is free.”